The Chieftain (Chapter 12)

Connor walked for what seemed like hours. He was grateful for the quiet of the night, even if the sense of peacefulness was false. He needed the time to think, and for once he was not accompanied by his guard. As chieftain, he was always surrounded, and yet always alone.

Which of his men had betrayed him? He considered each man who had come with him and dismissed each in turn. And yet, the traitor had to be someone who knew their destination.

After a couple of hours, Connor grew too light-headed to think anymore. He kept walking. Twice he lost the path and had to retrace his steps. Ahead of him, he saw the outline of odd, conical-shaped hills.

He stumbled ahead. As he drew closer, the night fog that lay between the strange hills transformed the moonlight into a soft glow. Above the mist, the tops of the hills had rows of ridges along their sides like ripples on the surface of water.

His mind was working slowly, but he had the uneasy feeling that he was forgetting something important. Something the woman with all the children had told him. The bindings on his arm and leg had loosened as he walked, and he was aware, in a distant way as if it were happening to someone else, that he was losing too much blood.

He sat down to tighten the bindings and dropped his head between his knees while he gathered his strength to do it. Then, forcing himself to stay alert, he retied the strip on his arm, using his teeth and one hand. Next, he unfastened the blood-soaked strip on his thigh and pulled that binding into a tight knot. With that done, he decided he could let himself rest for a moment before he got to his feet again.

Connor awoke shivering and realized he must have dozed off. With an effort, he lifted his head. The moon had not traveled far across the sky, so he could not have been asleep for long. He told himself he must get up and return to the castle before daylight. If the MacLeods – perhaps assisted by one of his own men – were searching for him, it would be safer to travel under cover of darkness.

His mind was thick and slow, but eventually it came to him that he was sitting in the midst of the faery glen. Though he had never been here before, the conical hills were just as they had been described to him. Strangely, the realization did not alarm him in the least.

Connor turned his head and saw the flickering light of a small fire through the mist. Friend or foe? A distinctly feminine form crossed in front of the fire. Whether she was a faery or a human, he did not know.

Was he imagining her? Connor blinked several times, but she was still there. Her slender, alluring shape was draped in a translucent, gossamer cloth, just like an angel. Or a faery.

As he watched, she began to dance around the fire, swaying with the grace of a bird dipping and soaring through the sky. Each time she passed on his side of the fire, he could see her lithe, supple shape through the thin cloth of her robe. She appeared to wear nothing at all underneath it.

There was something so beguiling about the faery lass's movements that Connor did not consider leaving. Since childhood he had heard tales of enchantments wrought by faeries, but if this was one, he did not care.

She sang in a high, sweet voice. Though Connor was too far away to make out the words, the sound filled his heart with longing. Everything about her entranced him: the tips of her small breasts beneath the thin fabric, the graceful swing of her robe, and the long, fair hair that tumbled down her back like a shimmering waterfall.

Desire swept through him. Whether she was a faery or an apparition, he wished with all his heart he could have one magical night with her. He longed to sweep his hand along the graceful lines of her body, to cup her breasts, to feel her hair slide over his skin. One enchanted night with this faery lass that he could hold on to and remember after she returned to her world and left him in his, where he was the hope of his clan and must always, always put duty first.

Connor sucked in his breath as sparks flew from her fingers. What would it be like to touch this ethereal, magical lass? To run kisses along her swanlike neck? To bury his face in her hair…to feel her breasts pressed against his bare chest…to feel the sparks from her fingertips on his skin…

His eyelids grew heavy as he watched the slow sway of her body and listened to the sweet melody of her voice. He was not sure if he was awake or dreaming as he lay her down on his plaid and she wrapped her slender legs around him while he kissed her deeply. If he was dreaming, he did not want to wake.

* * *

The feather-light fabric slid sensuously over Ilysa's skin as she dipped and whirled in slow, arcing movements around the fire. At first, she felt self-conscious dancing with her hair loose and nothing on beneath the thin gown, but no one else would venture into the faery glen and see her. Ilysa had braved coming to this special place to enhance the potency of her spell. After seeing the black danger around Connor in her vision, she understood that no simple charm could guard against it. Tearlag, who knew such things, said that the faery glen retained the power of the old magic.

Ilysa had never before attempted the fire dance, which called upon the power of the faeries, but Tearlag had told her what to do. She concentrated on her movements, which, like her dress, were meant to flatter the faeries by emulating them.

The old seer claimed to have received the gown, which was made from cloth that had lain outside on three successive full moons, as a gift from the faeries when she was a young lass. Ilysa found it easier to imagine that the gown had been made by faeries than to imagine Tearlag had ever been young.

As she swayed and twirled, Ilysa forgot herself and became lost in the freedom of the dance. Instead of the quiet, constrained lass no one noticed, she was a beautiful and beguiling faery princess. The power of the spell coursed through her as she sang the words.

Blades may cut you,

Yet none shall kill you.

False friends may deceive you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Allies may desert you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Enemies may trap you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Seun Dhe umad!

Lamh Dhe airson do dh��ona!

Spell of God about you!

The hand of God protect you!

As she dipped and whirled, she sprinkled the special herb mixture into the fire with both hands, causing it to snap and shoot sparks into the darkness. This, too, was to please the faeries, who were known to like anything that sparkled or shone.

When she finished the dance, Ilysa collapsed onto the ground and stared into the fire. Doing the fire dance once would afford Connor a strong measure of protection. But to gain the full power of the spell, she must do it a second time, also on a full moon.

She had done everything just as Tearlag had instructed. Still, she decided to add one more measure of protection and got to her feet. She had seen her mother do this many times in the years her brother, Connor, Ian, and Alex were in France – and the four of them had come home safely. It was a simple spell, just a charm really. The only important part was to make the circle in the right direction.

Ilysa moved around the fire left to right, deiseal, the direction that brought good fortune, dragging a stick along the ground.

"Protect him, heal him, bring him home."

She kept the image of Connor in her mind while she chanted the words over and over and made the circle, once, twice, thrice.

Weary and chilled to the bone, she put out the fire and wrapped her heavy cloak about her. She would have to hurry to make it back to the castle before the household woke.

With an expertise born of years of practice, she coiled her hair and tied a kerchief over it. Though it was the same one she always wore, the cloth felt rough beneath her fingers. The feather-light robe against her skin was the only reminder that, for a little while, she had been a beautiful faery princess.

* * *

Connor awoke to the gray light of predawn feeling stiff and wet from the rain that had fallen in the night while he slept. He glanced about him at the odd, conical hills, trying to recall where he was and how he got here.

Ahh, the faery glen. He had stumbled upon it last night on his way back to the castle after the attack…Connor sat bolt-upright as he remembered the faery lass.

She was gone. As he stared at the empty place between the hills where he had seen her dance, a sense of loss weighed down on his chest. Had he truly seen her? He shook his head. His dreams of making love to her had been so vivid that he could almost taste her on his lips.

For long minutes, he sat unmoving, hoping she would reappear. But no, she had disappeared with the night mist, like a dream or a faery in an old tale.

Connor was not a man given to fancy, but she had seemed so real that he was having a hard time convincing himself he had imagined her. Though it made no sense, he had felt drawn to her with all his being. He had felt lust for many women, of course. But this was a deeper kind of desire, the kind he feared was unquenchable. He felt as if he had glimpsed the only lass who could complete him. Was this faery magic she had worked on him?

Connor cursed himself. He had not been prone to such foolishness since he was a wee lad – not since the day his mother left. Catriona had captured all their hearts and made every day magical, but the magic died with her.

If his mother taught him anything, it was to be cautious when it came to women – especially the ones who could weave magic around men's hearts. Connor wanted a wife who, unlike his mother, was dependable and trustworthy – the kind of woman who did not leave.

Still, he was a man. Lust and yearning filled him as the image of the faery lass danced through his memory again. Though he had not been able to make out the features of her face in the night, he knew they would be as delicate and lovely as her graceful form.

Wanting was a useless waste of time. Though he was chieftain – or rather, because he was chieftain – Connor was not a man who could have what he wanted. Every choice he made, everything he did, must be in pursuit of restoring his clan and protecting his people.

And right now, that meant walking the remaining miles back to the castle on a wounded leg. When he got up, he was surprised to find he felt better for his night in the cold and rain. His head was clear again.

The coming dawn tinted the clouds pink as he walked through the wet grass between the odd hills. He remembered the glittering stone in his pouch and limped over to where he had seen – or imagined he had seen – the lass dancing.

When he saw the remains of a fire, he crouched down to touch the circle of rocks around it. The rain made it impossible to tell if the fire was from last night, but it was strange that someone had built a fire in the faery glen at all. As the sun broke over the hill, the slanting rays caused the wet grass to sparkle. Connor smiled, thinking of sparks flying from the faery lass's fingertips.

Was any of it real?

He took the glittering stone from his pouch and set it on a log near the fire, his thanks for the graceful beauty, whether real or imagined.