The Chieftain (Chapter 44)

Ilysa shivered against the cold as Ewan rowed his little boat from the inlet to the mouth of the river. It would be too difficult for him to row upstream against the current, and the distance was not too far to walk. She directed him to land the boat on the MacLeod side of the river.

"Thank you," she whispered to Ewan as she got out. "Be careful and go right home."

Though an eleven-year-old could hardly protect her, Ilysa felt very alone as his boat disappeared into the darkness. She brushed off her fear and walked briskly along the riverbank until she saw the glow of campfires through the mist. They were farther away than they looked. By the time she reached the edge of the enemy camp, her gown and cape were soaked up to her knees from the tall, wet grass.

Despite the cold, damp night air, her palms were sweaty as she approached it. All her life she had heard stories of the terrible things MacLeod warriors did to captured women. Her own mother had never recovered from what they had done to her. She saw a tent at the center and guessed that was where the chieftain slept. Was it possible she could simply walk through the sleeping camp to his tent?

She screamed as rough hands grabbed her from behind. Before she knew what was happening, she was jerked off her feet and her back slammed against a solid frame. She kicked and tried to bite the hand that clamped over her mouth.

"Damn it!" the man cursed when she rammed her heel into his shin.

They were making such a ruckus that several men awoke and surrounded them.

"We all want turns," one of them said, sending a wave of panic through her.

"Wait," another said. "We should find out who she is first."

Ilysa praised the saints for that one, for her captor finally removed his hand from her mouth.

"Get your hands off me," she said. "I'm a MacLeod, and I have a message for the chieftain."

"Ha, I'm sure ye do," one of the men said.

"I promise he'll be very angry if he doesn't get it," she said.

"And I'll be angry if I don't get something from you, lass," one of them said.

"I've been spying on the MacDonalds for the chieftain, and he will punish ye most severely if ye harm me." Ilysa was proud of herself for thinking of such a good lie.

"Ye know the chieftain doesn't approve of abusing women," one of the men said, which gave her hope until he added, "We'd best take her into the wood."

"I have proof!" she said quickly.

That seemed to give them pause.

"Take this to him," she said, holding out the brooch. She hoped they would not steal it, but she had no choice now but to take the risk. "You'll find that he does wish to see me."

* * *

Connor left his guard fifty yards up the river from where it split around the island. The stream was wider on the far side of the island, but the gap on the Trotternish side was narrow enough for him to leap over it. Between the darkness and the heavy mist that lay over the island, he could not see the lumpy ground beneath his feet. He suspected he was walking over ancient graves and prayed their souls were a long way away.

Though his claymore was useless against spirits, he carried it in his hand, ready to meet a more solid opponent hiding in the night mist. He had decided for once to trust in his heart, not his head, and proceed on blind faith. Still, he would be cautious. This was the perfect place to capture him, and Ilysa the perfect bait.

Questions rolled around in his head as he stole over the uneven ground. Why had Ilysa chosen this eerie place of the dead to meet? Where in the hell had she gone that she was not certain she would return before dawn? It was near midnight now, and he wondered how long he would have to wait.

The outline of the small church appeared out of the mist. The old, weathered door creaked as he pushed it open, and he heard a gasp from inside. It was a distinctly feminine sound.

"Ilysa?"

"Connor! Praise God it's you."

It was even darker inside the church, but he heard the swish of her gown as she stepped toward him. The next instant, they found each other, and she was in his arms. He clasped her tightly to him, unable to speak at first. He had feared he would never hold her again.

"I've missed ye so much," he said. It seemed impossible that she had only been gone a couple of days.

"I missed ye, too," she whispered.

"Don't leave me," he said. "I don't want us to ever be apart again."

She shook her head against his chest.

"This time, I'm asking ye to be my wife," he said. "I can't go on without ye."

Ilysa was crying. Could she not forgive him? He had to persuade her.

"I love ye so much, and I'm sorry I failed to trust ye," he said. "If you'll marry me, I'll strive to be the man ye believe I can be."

"You already are that man," she said, which was no answer.

"Ilysa, mo r��in, will ye have me?"

"I choose you for my husband, Connor MacDonald," she said with a smile in her voice as she echoed Tearlag's prediction. "In truth, I've been yours for the asking since the day ye returned from France."

The world fell away as he kissed her. Connor forgot the battles of today and tomorrow, the dangers facing his clan, and even the tombs of the dead surrounding them. At this moment, the lass who had danced away with his heart was in his arms. Ilysa had agreed to become his wife, and all things seemed possible.

"Your clothes are damp. Ye must be frozen, mo r��in," he said when they finally broke apart. "Why did ye want to meet in this abandoned church, among the dead?"

"'Tis close to the battle," she said, "and I thought we should do this in a neutral place where we could be certain of secrecy."

"Secrecy? A neutral place?" he asked. "Why?"

The door creaked, and Connor whirled around, brandishing his claymore. In the doorway, he saw the outline of a giant warrior with a distinctive hunched shoulder.

"Connor," Ilysa said from behind him and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Meet my grandfather, Alastair MacLeod."

* * *

Ilysa grew weary as the two chieftains went around and around in negotiations that seemed to go nowhere. At first, it appeared they would come to a quick agreement after Connor informed her grandfather about their upcoming marriage and apologized for Sorely's atrocities. But generations of bloody history could not be overcome so easily. The two men did not trust each other, and the discussions soon stalled.

Dawn was nearing, and the only point the two could agree upon was that Ilysa's parentage should be kept secret. Alastair was adamant that a future chieftain of the MacDonalds not have a claim to the chieftainship of his clan, and Connor feared the taint of MacLeod blood could be used against his sons when his successor was chosen.

"The child I carry," she said, interrupting them, "has the blood of both of ye."

This was not how she had planned to tell Connor, but this had gone on long enough. Her announcement was met with startled silence, then Connor pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly.

"Would ye kill the man who is my grandfather and our child's great-grandfather?" she asked him, and then she turned to Alastair. "And would you have my babe be fatherless?" For good measure, she added, "I'm tired, and I need my rest."

After that, matters were settled swiftly. As Connor accompanied her back to Flora's cottage, Ilysa was so filled with joy she could hardly contain herself. The agreement the two chieftains had reached to resolve their current conflict was an enormous victory. It had been too much to expect that the two rival clans would form a close alliance, but she had hope now that they could live in peace. And she would soon be Connor's wife.

"Shh, don't wake them," she cautioned Connor outside the cottage door.

"I'll come back for ye as soon as I can," he said and embraced her once more. "You've made me the happiest of men."

She watched his back until she could no longer see him in the dark. Hugging herself, she quietly opened the door so as not to wake the family, though she felt like shouting her news.

Connor and I shall marry! The battle for Trotternish is over!

She eased the door closed behind her. As she started to tiptoe across the room, a muffled sound made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Before she could scream, for the second time that night, a hand covered her mouth.

"Hello, Ilysa," a familiar, deep voice rumbled in her ear. "I always knew a lass would be my nephew's downfall, but I never guessed it would turn out to be you."