The Chieftain (Chapter 43)

Is that my brother Niall?" Ian asked, looking up at the descending horde. "I thought he was with Ilysa."

"Put down your weapons!" Connor shouted, breaking into a grin. "These are friends."

Torquil MacLeod of Lewis had come, and they had Ilysa to thank for it. When she told him she did not trust Sorely, Connor had dismissed her concern at first. But Torquil's lack of response to the message he had sent with Sorely troubled him. On the chance Ilysa was right, he had sent Niall with a second message.

"A thousand welcomes to ye, brother. I'm glad to meet ye at last," Connor greeted Torquil, a rough-looking warrior of about thirty years, who had the same jet-black hair as Connor and Ian. "These are your MacDonald cousins, Alex and Ian, and our friend Duncan."

"I accept your offer," Torquil said. "My warriors will fight with yours today in exchange for you doing the same for me when the time comes."

Torquil was a chieftain without lands. After his father had supported the last rebellion, the Crown had punished him by taking away his clan's traditional lands on the isle of Lewis.

"I gladly give ye my pledge," Connor said, grasping forearms with his brother.

"Good," Torquil said with a broad smile. "My men are ready for a fight."

* * *

All day, Ilysa and Flora had kept busy while they waited for news. Malcom had left a couple of hours before dawn. The cottage was fairly close to the mouth of the Snizort River, so they had been among the last to receive the crann tara.

After hours of sewing, Ilysa had worked her way through the pile of children's clothing that needed mending. She stuck her needle in a scrap and carefully set it in her medicine basket. As she did, her fingers touched the rock she had found at the faery glen, which she had put in the basket along with her brooch for safekeeping. She took the rock out and turned it over in her palm, watching it sparkle in the firelight from the hearth.

Flora came over with Brigid on her hip and looked over Ilysa's shoulder. "I do believe that's my rock," she said.

"How can ye be so sure?" Ilysa said with a laugh. She was not about to tell Flora that she had found it in the faery glen.

"I carried it in my pocket for years as a gift to appease the faeries should one cross my path," Flora said. "I gave it to our chieftain the night he was here in case he needed it. Did he give it to ye?"

"I believe he thought I was a faery," Ilysa said in a soft voice as she rubbed her thumb over it.

Flora's laugh was cut short when Lachlan burst through the door. He was carrying Malcom, who was bleeding from the head. While Flora and Ewan rushed to help him, Ilysa fetched a blanket and spread it on the floor in front of the hearth where the light was best.

"There were hundreds of MacLeod warriors," Malcom said after they lay him down. "I thought they'd never stop coming."

"The wound is worse than it looks," Ilysa said as she stanched the blood, then she looked to Lachlan. "What other news can ye give us?"

"The MacLeod force is three times the size of ours, and it was looking grim at midday," Lachlan said. "But then the MacLeod of Lewis arrived with his warriors."

"Flora, ye would have been proud of Lachlan," Malcom said. "Ye should see him fight."

"Hush now," Flora said. "Ye must save your strength."

"I just wanted to bring Malcom home," Lachlan said. "I must get back. The battle will continue tomorrow."

Ilysa followed him to the door and asked in a low voice, "How bad does it look, truly?"

"I fear there's no end in sight," Lachlan said. "That old goat MacLeod shows no sign of giving in."

* * *

Celebrating Beltane made for a strange end to the toughest day of fighting Connor could remember, but the ritual, which brought purification and luck, was important to the clan. Connor was the first to pass between the two giant bonfires, followed by all the warriors and a few families who lived nearby. Finally, some cattle were driven between the fires.

Now that the herds and crops were protected for the coming year, Connor hoped it would not be for the benefit of the MacLeods. He looked across the river to where the MacLeod bonfires blazed against the night sky while he listened to the soft voices of his own men talking. After their cries for blood earlier, they were subdued.

He had lost too many men today. If this fight continued much longer, there would be no winner. Thanks to Torquil's arrival, they had succeeded in holding the MacLeods at the river. But Torquil had only half the men Connor had expected from MacIain, and it was not enough for a decisive victory.

He could not blame Alastair MacLeod for taking Trotternish when the MacDonalds were weak and it had been easy. That was the way of it in the Highlands – the strong survived. That was also why Connor had to take back Trotternish. Either you defended your lands or you risked being attacked on all sides.

But if Sorely and that handful of fools had not defiled the MacLeod dead and raped their women, the MacLeod would likely have decided by now that losing so many warriors was not worth taking land that did not belong to him. Connor hoped Sorely was burning in hell.

"I'm grateful to ye for coming," Connor said to Torquil as they sat with their backs against a log watching the bonfires.

"We have a blood tie," Torquil said, as if that explained it.

"Frankly, I'm more accustomed to that leading to murder," Connor said with a dry laugh. After a long while, he said, "I am sorry for how our mother left ye."

"Ach, I had a pack of older half sisters who spoiled me," Torquil said. "I don't remember our mother, and I surely didn't miss her."

"When I was a bairn, she was the moon and stars to me," Connor admitted. "The older men still talk about her beauty."

"As our fathers learned, she was more trouble than she was worth," Torquil said. "I count myself lucky to have the love of a kindhearted woman who has stayed with me through my present hard times."

"If I live through this, I'm going to marry a lass who is like that – if she'll still have me," Connor said.

He stared into the dwindling bonfire thinking about Ilysa. Looking back now, he recalled the many ways, big and small, that Ilysa acted to protect the clan – and him. Since she left, he had received still more proof of her loyalty. Now he knew that she had saved his life when she locked him in the dungeon. And it was only because she had cautioned him about Sorely that Torquil was here today to help beat back the MacLeod attack. Connor was ashamed of his doubts, but trusting in a woman's love and loyalty came hard to him.

Tearlag had told him the right lass would choose him, but he had not been wise enough to know it. He had sacrificed their happiness to make a marriage alliance, which now seemed like a slender reed on which to rest his clan's future. Belatedly, he realized that Ilysa was the best wife he could choose not only for himself, but for his clan. No other woman would be as devoted to the clan's welfare or as wise and steadfast a helpmate to him. And only with her at his side could he become the chieftain his clan needed him to be.

He still could think of no good explanation for why Ilysa would meet with their clan's worst enemy, that devil Alastair MacLeod. But if God gave him another chance, he would put his faith in the woman who had always had faith in him.

His thoughts were interrupted by Lachlan, who appeared out of the darkness, his hair bright in the firelight.

"Ye fought well today," Connor told him, and he refrained from mentioning that he also noticed that Lachlan disappeared afterward.

"I brought ye a message." Lachlan slanted a look at Torquil. "It's private."

Connor was bone-weary, and his shoulders ached from swinging his claymore all day, but he hauled himself to his feet. The air was chilly when he stepped away from the fire.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Ilysa wants ye to meet her," Lachlan said. "She says it's important."

Connor's weariness fell away. Ilysa wanted to see him.

"You're to come alone to the abandoned church on Saint Columba's Island after midnight," Lachlan said. "If she's not there by an hour before dawn, you're to leave because she's not coming."

Saint Columba, a small island in the Snizort River, was the site of the church of the Bishops of the Isles for five hundred years before it was abandoned near the time the Lord of the Isles submitted to the Scottish Crown. Its burial ground was crowded with the graves of ancient chieftains and warriors, including some who had fought in the Crusades.

"That's a strange place and time to meet," Connor said. "Why can't I meet her at your sister's?"

"I had the impression Ilysa meant to leave the cottage as soon as I was out the door," Lachlan said.

"How do I know this message is from Ilysa and not a trap you're setting at Hugh's behest?" Connor asked. "Ye expect me to leave my men in the midst of battle and go alone to this isolated place in the black of night on trust?"

If Connor died, the clan would be forced to choose a chieftain between the only other males with chieftain's blood, Moira's young son and Hugh. The chance they would put the clan in Hugh's hands was too great for Connor to risk his life lightly.

"Ilysa said to give ye this."

Connor stared at the stone that Lachlan dropped into his palm. Even this far from the fire, it picked up the light. He recognized it at once as the glittering stone he had left for his dancing faery. For Ilysa.

The question was no longer whether he trusted Lachlan with his life and his clan's future, but whether he trusted them to Ilysa. Connor had not expected the test of his faith in her to come quite so soon or to be so stark.