The Chieftain (Chapter 38)

Our warriors did what?" Connor thundered at Lachlan.

His head pounded from lack of sleep, and his temper was frayed. The first rays of dawn were slanting through his windows when he finally fell into his cold, empty bed. After a few hours of tossing and turning, he had finally fallen into a restless sleep. He was dreaming of Ilysa dancing around the MacLeod chieftain with sparks flying from her fingertips when Lachlan and Sorely banged on his door to report on their excursion.

The moment he saw them, he knew something had gone terribly wrong. The animosity between the two men veered to the edge of violence.

Connor shifted his gaze to Sorely, who had given a glowing report of their success, then back to Lachlan, who had spoken last.

"Our warriors chopped off the heads of the dead MacLeods," Lachlan repeated, "and sent them floating down the river."

After his night at the faery glen, Connor had mistakenly thought things could not get worse. He was so angry his vision went blood-red around the edges.

"We have every right to fight for the return of our lands," Connor said through his teeth. "But this sort of barbarism turns it into a blood feud. Our grandchildren will still be fighting because of what you've done."

"I knew ye would be angry," Lachlan said.

"Then why in the hell did ye not stop it?" Connor said, clenching his fists.

"I wasn't the one in charge," Lachlan spat out.

"Did the two of ye just stand by and let this happen?" Connor demanded, shifting his gaze from one to the other.

"I had my hands full keeping Sorely and the others from murdering a MacLeod farmer's wife and daughter, after they raped them," Lachlan said, his nostrils flaring. "I thought that was more important than saving the heads of those already dead."

"You participated in this travesty?" Connor said, turning on Sorely. When he saw the smirk on Sorely's face, he knew. "Christ, ye ordered it, didn't ye?"

"Ye said to rattle their cages," Sorely said with an insolent shrug. "That's what I did."

"Trotternish is not MacLeod homeland, so they would not have fought to the death for it as we will," Connor said. "Now that you've made it a matter of honor for them, they'll bring the full force of their fury upon us, and it will cost us many more lives."

"I fought under your father and your brother Ragnall for years," Sorely said. "This is exactly what they would have done."

"Not my brother, not Ragnall." Connor's anger was cold and hard, like ice in his chest at the accusation, though he could not say for certain that his father would not do such a thing.

"Ragnall was a fearsome warrior," Sorely hissed, "just like your father."

Sorely appeared to have no idea how close he was to being skewered with Connor's sword.

"Well, I am not like my father," Connor said, and for the first time he saw himself as a better leader than his father was. "I should have made my expectations clear. We do not rape women or defile the dead!"

"'Tis a mistake to show an enemy mercy," Sorely said, his face going an angry red. "Your father and brother understood that."

Connor picked Sorely up by the front of his shirt and slammed him against the wall. "Get out of my sight before I order ye cast adrift at sea as my father did to the nursemaid you're so frightened of," he said between his teeth. "Unlike that lass, you'd deserve it."

"You'd best mind your back with Sorely after this," Lachlan said in a low voice after Connor tossed Sorely out the door. "Better yet, lock him in the dungeon."

He was tempted instead to hand Sorely over to Alastair MacLeod, who would give him a far worse death than casting him adrift at sea.

"Sorely is too loyal to my father's memory to go to Hugh, who was the brother my father hated most," Connor said. "I will deal with Sorely later. For now, I need every warrior."

"What do ye think the MacLeod will do now?" Lachlan asked.

Connor went to the window and imagined a mass of MacLeod warriors charging across the field toward the castle.

"Taking the castle by force would cost him too many men," Connor said. "He'll want to consolidate his control of the countryside first so that he can keep food and our clansmen from reaching the castle."

"Up until now, he's held Trotternish with relatively few warriors," Lachlan said. "His control is thin."

Connor had come to the same conclusion from his night forays.

"After what Sorely and the others did, Alastair MacLeod will be angry, but not foolish," Connor said. "My guess is he'll sweep across the Snizort River with a large force, burning MacDonald homes in retribution and strengthening his hold on the countryside. We must stop him from crossing the river with all those men, and he knows it. He'll hope for a sound defeat to show us the futility of our cause. After that, he'll lay siege to the castle and bide his time while he starves us out."

"Sounds about right to me," Lachlan said. "How long will it take him to gather his forces?"

"Even if he moves quickly, it will take him a couple of days," Connor said. "If we're lucky, he'll want to wait until after the purification of the fields and herds by the fires of Beltane, which gives us three days."

He hoped to hell the other MacDonald warriors and MacIain's arrived before the MacLeod attack began. It would be a disaster if the enemy crossed the river en masse.

"I'm making ye captain of my guard," Connor said. "Come, I'll speak to the men now. We must prepare for battle."

* * *

The sun was high when Ilysa awoke. Though she still felt groggy from her long night, she told herself she must go downstairs to see that everything was going as it should. She sat up. But then she remembered that the responsibility for managing the household was not hers – or at least it would not be for much longer – and flopped back down.

She stared at the ceiling and contemplated the events of the last two days. Between the arrival of Connor's bride and the discovery that her father was the son of the MacLeod chieftain, she felt shaken to her foundations.

Alastair MacLeod is my grandfather.

No matter that by Highland tradition she belonged to her father's clan, she would always be a MacDonald. She had told Alastair as much. She could no more go live with him among the MacLeods than she could live among the hated English. And yet, it made her feel less alone in the world to know that she had a grandfather who wanted her.

Alastair was gruff, much like her brother, and he seemed an honorable man. Despite the briefness of their acquaintance, she found she liked him a great deal. She felt certain that under different circumstances he and Connor would get along well. It pained her that her newfound grandfather and the man she loved would soon be waging war against each other, as MacLeods and MacDonalds seemed destined to do with regularity. If Ilysa needed it, that was one more reason to wed the MacNeil chieftain and leave Skye.

When she finally dressed and went downstairs to the hall, she found the men preparing for war. She stopped one of them, who told her that the chieftain expected the battle against the MacLeods to come soon, perhaps even before their other warriors arrived.

Connor was busy giving orders to the men, who all seemed to be in motion. When he saw her, he stopped in place. For an instant, his eyes burned into her. But then, he broke their gaze and abruptly left the hall.

Seeing him filled her with such a painful longing that she told herself it was just as well Connor could not bear to be in the same room with her. All day, Jane and her mother were constantly underfoot, adding to her misery. The two expected to be waited on and entertained, while all the other women oiled plaids to keep the warriors dry and prepared food for them to carry.

Just before sunset, a cheer went up in the castle when Alex arrived with fifty warriors from their stronghold on the isle of North Uist. Connor looked as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders as he greeted his cousin.

"Am I glad to see ye," Connor said as they gripped forearms.

"I didn't want to risk missing any of the fun, so I came early," Alex said.

The sail from North Uist was shorter than the journey Ian and Duncan would make from the far end of Skye, but it was across open water, which meant Alex had a greater risk of being held up by bad weather – not that he would ever admit a mere storm could delay him.

"There's my favorite lass in all of Trotternish," Alex called out when he saw Ilysa.

He strode over to her and lifted her off her feet. As he spun her around, his laughter rang in her ears, and the oppression that had closed in on her all day lifted for a brief moment.

"Alex!" Connor's voice cut through the hall, his tone so sharp that it was like a blade to her heart. "We must speak without delay."

Connor turned on his heel and marched through the doorway to the adjoining building without a backward glance. When Alex raised his eyebrows at Ilysa, she shook her head.

"Ye can't keep anything from me – I'll get if from ye later," he said with a wink before he left to follow Connor.

"Ilysa!" Jane called.

Ilysa was too weary and profoundly unhappy to humor Jane. Instead, she pretended not to hear, which was so unlike her, and went straight to her new bedchamber at the top of the keep. She began packing her things at once, determined to move forward with her plans – and to not give in and go to Connor's bedchamber. Somehow, she must learn to live without him.

Despite his coldness toward her today, Ilysa felt her resolve weakening by the moment. All that saved her from going to him was the knowledge that Alex was in his chamber. The two would likely be up until all hours talking.

But how she wanted him. She fell across the bed and pounded her fists. Why, why, why can't I have him? Why can't I be the one he weds? She felt both confused and overwhelmed by loneliness. Perhaps things would look better in the morning when she was not so tired and did not miss him so much. But tonight, she let the tears come.

Tomorrow she would be brave again.

* * *

"Praise God you're here," Connor said when he and Alex were alone in his chamber with the door closed. "I need someone I know I can trust."

"'Tis like that, is it?" Alex raised an eyebrow. "I thought ye would have weeded out Hugh's spies by now."

"They are like weeds," Connor said as he poured them both cups of whiskey from the jug on the table. "Pull one and two more appear in its place."

Connor told him about Hugh's attack on the farms on the east side of Trotternish, the murder of the two guards, and the skirmish with the MacLeods that ended with heads in the river.

"Ach, that is bad," Alex said, making a face.

Though it did not solve anything, Connor felt better after discussing all the disasters with Alex – all of them, that is, except Ilysa.

"I have news as well," Alex said.

"I can't take more bad news, so this better be good," Connor said and tossed back another whiskey.

"I wouldn't call it bad news, but your uncle Archibald is dead."

"Dead?" Connor straightened. "I saw him not long ago. What happened?"

"He let Hugh Dubh into his home is what happened." Alex paused to take a drink. "Hugh murdered Archibald while he was a guest in his brother's home."

Hugh was not only guilty of a cowardly act and murdering his last brother, but he had violated the ancient and sacrosanct Highland code of hospitality between host and guest, which was almost worse.

"The story is that, after enjoying a fine meal at Archibald's table, Hugh called his brother to the window to look at his new galley – then stuck his dirk in Archibald's back."

After a long silence, Connor said, "I was invited to join them."

"Ye were wise not to go," Alex said and lifted his cup to Connor.

"I would have gone," Connor said, feeling the weight of his errors and misjudgments like a boulder on his back, "except that Ilysa locked me in my own dungeon to prevent me."

Alex threw his head back and laughed. There was nothing for it then but to tell him the full tale, which caused his cousin to laugh so hard that tears rolled down his face.

"I always knew that lass had more spark than she let on," Alex said, slapping the table. "I can't wait to tell Ian and Duncan."

Connor would never hear the end of it from the three of them, though he could count on them never to undermine his authority by speaking of it to anyone else.

"Ilysa is as stubborn as her brother. She just hides it behind a sweet manner," Alex said. "That must have been why ye sent her packing to Dunscaith, aye? I'd say ye owe her an apology."

Connor's stomach dropped. Alex had no idea how wrong he was.

"A large gift is in order, for she saved your sorry arse," Alex said. "What would ye say your life is worth? A fine horse? A bag of gold?"

Ilysa had saved him. Did this mean he was wrong about the rest? But he had seen her meeting with the MacLeod. There was no mistaking that. He could think of no reason for their meeting except treachery, but he should have heard her out. He owed her that.

He was anxious to go talk to her. Yet he had such a weakness for Ilysa that he decided to tell Alex about her meeting with the MacLeod and hear his thoughts first. Connor took a gulp of his whiskey. He dreaded telling him what Ilysa had done, knowing how fond Alex was of her.

"Alex, there is something I must tell ye." He paused. "'Tis about Ilysa."

"For God's sake, Connor," Alex said, springing to his feet. "You're fooking Duncan's baby sister, aren't ye? I knew it!"

This was not what he had intended to disclose to Alex, but his cousin was exceptionally perceptive about such things.

"Ye can stop worrying about Hugh and the MacLeods," Alex said, gesturing with his hands as he paced the room. "Duncan will kill ye first."

* * *

Ilysa must have fallen asleep, for she was dreaming of Connor when a knock on the door awoke her. Her first thought was that it was him, and she scrambled out of bed and opened the door without bothering to wrap a plaid about her.

In the glow of the torchlight from the stairwell, she saw that it was Lachlan. Disappointment weighed down on her chest. It was a long moment before she realized Lachlan was staring holes into her and still longer before she remembered she was in just her nightshift. When she swung the door closed, Lachlan stuck his foot in it. He looked past her, taking in the open chest and the clothes laid out.

"What do ye want?" she asked, leaning out from behind the door.

"My sister's youngest is gravely ill," he said. "She sent my nephew to fetch you. He's waiting in the boat. Will ye come?"

"Of course," she said. "I'll just be a moment."

She did not even know Lachlan had a sister, yet there was no mistaking the worry in his voice. After closing the door, she quickly donned her gown and heavy cloak, then gathered the herbs she thought she might need into her basket.