The Chieftain

Chapter 1


Ye can't go with Connor," Duncan told her.
"Who else will set up his household at Trotternish Castle?" Ilysa continued sorting and packing her clothes while her brother, who was twice her size and all brawny muscle, glowered down at her. "Ach, there will be so much to do."
"I won't allow it," Duncan said, crossing his arms.
Ilysa paused to give her brother a smile because he meant well, though she was not going to let him stop her. "For heaven's sake, Duncan, why shouldn't I go?"
"If you're keeping his household, everyone will believe that you're also warming his bed," Duncan said in a low hiss.
"I've been managing his household here at Dunscaith Castle since he became chieftain, and no one thinks that." It would not occur to any of them, least of all Connor. Ilysa stifled a sigh and returned to her packing.
"That's because I live here," Duncan said. "Ye grew up here. This is your home. Following the chieftain to Trotternish Castle is a different matter altogether."
What would she do if she remained here? Now that Duncan had married Connor's sister and been made keeper of Dunscaith, Ilysa had lost her place. Though she and Duncan's new bride were friends, there could be only one mistress of a castle.
"If you're troubled about this, why don't ye speak to Connor?" Ilysa asked. "He's been your best friend since the cradle."
"I won't insult my friend and chieftain by suggesting he'd take advantage of my sister!"
"But you'll insult me?" Ilysa asked, arching an eyebrow - though if Connor MacDonald wanted to take advantage of her, she would faint from pure happiness.
"I'm no saying anything would actually happen between the two of ye," Duncan said, raising his hands in exasperation. "But if the men think ye belong to the chieftain, you'll never get another husband."
"I don't recall saying I wanted one." Ilysa held up an old cloak to examine it for moth holes. "Should I take an extra cloak? They say the wind is strong on the north end of the island."
"Ilysa - " Duncan stopped abruptly.
Years of fighting had made her brother's instincts sharp and his reflexes quick. Before Ilysa could draw a breath to ask what was wrong, Duncan had run out into the castle courtyard and pulled his claymore from the scabbard on his back.
Through the open door, Ilysa heard shouting and raced out after him.
"What is it?" Duncan called up to one of the guards on the wall.
"Three riders are galloping hard for the gate," the man shouted. "One looks injured."
Please, God, don't let it be Connor. He had gone for a last hunt with his cousins before his departure for Trotternish. Usually, Duncan would be with them, but he had stayed behind to be with his bride. And to lecture Ilysa.
Ilysa followed in Duncan's wake as he ran through the warriors who were flooding into the courtyard. Through the open gate, she saw the three horsemen riding hell-bent for the castle. Her stomach dropped when she recognized Connor as the injured rider, flanked by his two cousins. He was slumped forward, looking as if he was barely holding on. The rest of his guard was several yards behind them.
As the three riders drew up to the narrow bridge that connected the castle to the main island, Duncan ran across it and blocked her view. Ilysa wanted to scream in frustration as she alternately rose on her toes and leaned to the side, trying to see.
"Clear the way!" Duncan shouted as he came back across the bridge.
The world fell away as Ilysa saw Connor enter the castle between his cousins, Ian and Alex, who were half carrying him. His black hair hung over his face, and the front of his tunic was drenched in blood.
"Run and fetch my medicines," Ilysa told the serving woman next to her before she ran after the others into the keep. As she entered the hall, she called out to another woman, "Bring blankets from my brother's bedchamber."
With one sweep of his arm, Duncan sent cups and platters clattering to the floor, clearing the high table just before Ian and Alex lifted Connor onto it and laid him down.
"O shluagh!" Ilysa said, calling on the faeries for help, when she saw the arrows sticking out of Connor's chest and thigh. How many times will our enemies try to kill him?
When Connor tried to sit up, Duncan held him down with a firm hand.
"I'm no badly hurt," Connor objected, but his face was gray.
"We rode hard for fear that he'd bleed to death before we reached the castle," Alex said as he sliced Connor's tunic open with his dirk to expose the wound.
"The arrows came from rocks above us," Ian said. "We were in the middle of an open field where we were easy targets, so we couldn't stop to take care of his wounds."
"We'll take the arrow out of his chest first, then the one in his leg," Ilysa said after she examined both wounds. She held her breath as she rested her fingertips on Connor's wrist. "'Tis fortunate that ye have the heart of a lion, Connor MacDonald."
Connor started to laugh, then winced. "Just get the damned things out of me. They hurt like hell."
"Someone bring us whiskey," Duncan shouted. "The rest of ye, out!"
When the whiskey arrived, Duncan cradled Connor's head and poured it down his throat.
Ilysa noticed the blood running down Ian's arm, but his injury could wait. Connor's could not. Still, this was not as serious as that other time, shortly after the four of them had returned from France. She shuddered as she recalled Ian carrying Connor's broken body into the seer's tiny cottage. Connor had been more dead than alive. With God's help, she and Tearlag had snatched him back from death's door.
"Cutting the arrow out will be a wee bit messy," Alex said as he wiped his long dirk on his tunic. "I'll do that, Ilysa, and ye can do the sewing."
"I think we'll need all of ye to hold him down," Ilysa said, knowing the men would take that better than telling them a delicate hand was needed with the blade. "If Connor moves, it will make things worse."
While the men poured more whiskey into Connor, she made a poultice.
"Ready?" Duncan asked Connor. When he nodded, Duncan took the tooth-marked strip of leather from Ilysa's basket of medicines and put it between Connor's teeth.
Ilysa exchanged glances with the others, then took a deep breath and willed her hands not to shake. The arrow was deep, and it was barbed, so she had to work carefully. Thankfully, Connor passed out long before she finished.
After she cut out the arrow, Ilysa cleaned the wound thoroughly with whiskey and covered it with the poultice. Then she did the same with the arrow in his thigh. The three men were skilled at dressing battle wounds, so she sat down on the bench next to the table while they wound strips of linen around Connor's chest, looping the cloth under his left arm and over his right shoulder.
Now that it was over, a wave of nausea hit her, and she leaned forward to rest her forehead on the table. She slipped her hand into Connor's. When he was so badly injured the last time, she had washed his naked body with cool cloths to break his fever. Somehow, holding his hand now felt more intimate.
Ach, she was pathetic. She sat up and gazed at his face, which was eased of worry for once. Though his looks were the least of what drew her to him, a lass would have to be dead not to notice how handsome he was. He had scars all over his body, attesting to battles and attempts on his life, but his face was unmarked. He was perfect, an Adonis with black hair and silvery blue eyes.
Since Connor returned from France to find his father and brother dead and their clan near ruin, he had devoted himself with single-minded determination to restoring the clan's lands and making their people safe. If he lived long enough, he would be one of the great chieftains, the kind the bards told stories about. Whatever Ilysa could do to help him, she would.
"Connor will be fine," Ian said, squeezing her shoulder. "Ye did well."
"Let me see to that cut on your arm." Ilysa chastised herself for daydreaming while Ian needed tending and pushed up his bloody sleeve. "Looks like an arrow grazed ye."
"'Tis nothing," Ian said.
Ilysa rolled her eyes and set to work on it. "Connor's wounds are deep and will bear watching," she said for her brother's benefit. "He'll need a healer to travel with him to Trotternish."
"There must be healers in Trotternish," Duncan said.
"None that we can trust," she said as she tied the bandage around Ian's arm. "A healer wouldn't even have to poison him, though she could. 'Tis easy to let a wound go bad."
* * *
It should have been a clean kill.
Lachlan mulled over what went wrong as he waited at the meeting point for Hugh's galley, which would take him back to Trotternish. He had wasted his first arrow on the wrong man. When the rider entered the clearing, he fit the description Lachlan had been given: a tall warrior near Lachlan's age with a rangy build and hair as black as a crow. Fortunately, the man's horse had jerked to the side and saved his life. Lachlan was relieved he had only winged him. He did not make a practice of killing men who did not deserve it.
As soon as the next man charged his horse into the clearing, Lachlan realized his mistake. He could not have said why, for the two looked much alike, but he had known immediately that the second man was the chieftain. There was something about him that bespoke his position as leader of the clan.
Odd, how the chieftain had ridden directly into Lachlan's range when he saw the arrow strike his companion. Connor MacDonald had not hesitated, not spared a glance behind him to look for someone else to do it.
It was the chieftain's unexpected willingness to put the life of one of his men before his own that had caused Lachlan to falter, just for an instant, and send his next arrow into the chieftain's thigh instead of his heart. Lachlan recovered quickly, and his third arrow struck the chieftain in the chest, though it may have been too high to kill him.
Next time, he would not falter.
* * *
The four men were in deep discussion when Ilysa slipped into the chamber with a tray. She glanced at Connor, who had no business being out of bed a day after he was wounded. Though he hid his pain well, she saw it in the strain around his eyes.
"We haven't found the man who shot those arrows," Ian said. "His tracks were washed out in the rain."
As Ilysa started around the table refilling their cups, Duncan gave her his icy warrior's stare to let her know that their earlier argument was not finished. Ilysa responded with a serene smile to let him know that it was.
"We all know Hugh is responsible for this attack," Alex said, referring to Connor's half uncle who was set on taking the chieftainship from him. "He's tried to have Connor murdered more than once."
"The MacLeods wouldn't attack us here on the Sleat Peninsula where we are strong," Ian agreed. "This was a single archer, and my guess is he was one of our own."
"We have vipers among us!" Duncan slammed his fist on the table, causing their cups to rattle.
As Ilysa refilled their cups, Ian shot her a quick, dazzling smile, and Alex winked at her. She had always been fond of Connor's cousins, though the pair had been philandering devils before they settled down to become devoted husbands. Ian and Connor had gotten their black hair from their mothers, who were sisters, while Alex had the fair hair of the Vikings who had once terrorized the isles.
"Will ye reconsider your decision to live at Trotternish Castle?" Ian asked Connor. "Up there, ye won't have us to guard your back as we did yesterday."
"Hell," Alex said. "if someone kills ye, we're likely to end up with Hugh as chieftain."
"By making Trotternish Castle my home," Connor said, "I'm sending a message to the MacLeods - and to the Crown - that I am not giving up our claim to the Trotternish Peninsula."
Connor's deep voice reverberated somewhere low in Ilysa's belly, making her hand quiver as she poured whiskey into his cup. For a moment she feared he would notice, but she needn't have worried.
"I want them to know," Connor continued, "that we will fight for the lands the MacLeods stole from us."
"A' phlaigh oirbh, a Chlanna MhicLeid!" - a plague on the MacLeods! - the four chanted in unison and raised their cups.
Ilysa could see that she had arrived just in time with more whiskey.
"If you're intent on this," Duncan said, "I should remain as captain of your guard and go with ye."
"I need ye to protect our people here, just as I need Ian and Alex to hold our other castles," Connor said. "I'm sailing for Trotternish in the morning, so I suggest we discuss how to remove the MacLeods from our lands."
Ach, the man should let his wounds heal before leaving. Ilysa would have to watch him closely on the two-day journey.
She took her tray to the side table and stood with her back to them, pretending to be busy. Because they suspected Connor's uncle had spies in the castle, Ilysa had always served them herself when Connor's inner circle met in private. The four men were so accustomed to her coming and going that they never noticed when she stayed to listen.
"The MacLeods are a powerful clan," Ian said. "We won't defeat them without a strong ally fighting at our side."
"If ye want us to take Trotternish," Alex said, "ye should make a marriage alliance with another clan."
Ilysa tensed, though she was certain Connor would say it was not yet time, as he always did.
"Several clans have already left the rebellion, and it will end soon," Ian said. "'Tis possible now to judge which clans will have power - and which won't - when it's over."
"Ye always said that's what ye were waiting for," Alex said. "Of course, we think ye were just stalling."
"You're right," Connor said. "'Tis time for me to take a wife."
Ilysa's vision went dark, and she gripped the edge of the table to keep from falling. Concentrating to keep her feet under her, she sidestepped along the table. When she reached the end of it, she turned around and half fell onto the bench that was beside it against the wall.
From the long silence that followed Connor's announcement, the men were as surprised as she was.
"We prodded the bull by taking Trotternish Castle. Alastair MacLeod could strike back at us at any time," Connor said. "The sooner I make a marriage alliance, the better."
Soon? Ilysa took deep breaths trying to calm herself. What was wrong with her? She had known Connor would wed eventually.
"God knows, ye need a woman," Alex said. "How long has it been?"
When the others began making ribald remarks, Ilysa knew they had forgotten her completely and was grateful for it. Connor's apparent celibacy since becoming chieftain had been the subject of a good deal of speculation and gossip. The men of the castle seemed almost as amazed by the chieftain's failure to take any lass to his bed as the women were disappointed.
The distance to the door suddenly seemed too far. As soon as Ilysa could trust herself to walk, she forced herself to get to her feet. She crossed the floor with her head down and bit her lip hard to keep from weeping.
* * *
Connor let them have their laugh though he had little humor for this particular subject. He took a long drink of his whiskey. By the saints, he needed a woman.
His father and grandfather were great warriors, but the strife they caused with all their women had weakened the clan. His grandfather's six sons by six different women had all hated each other. After the murder and mayhem among them, only two remained alive. Connor's own father's philandering had caused another round of turmoil.
Connor was determined not to follow in their footsteps in that respect. During his years in France and before, he had taken pleasure in the company of women, as young warriors will. But when he returned to find his father and brother dead, everything changed. He could never again do as he pleased. As chieftain, his every decision had consequences for the clan.
He could afford no missteps. Connor's half uncle, who was called Hugh Dubh, Black Hugh, for his black heart, had nearly destroyed the clan before Connor took the chieftainship from him. Thanks to the help of the three men sitting with Connor now, the clan had recovered much of its strength. Relying on their swords and their wits, they had taken control of the clan's castles and secured most of their lands. All that remained was to reclaim the Trotternish Peninsula.
Connor would not destroy all he had built by leaving a legacy of strife and sorrow as his father and grandfather had done. He was determined to wed only once, provided he was not widowed, and to have no children except with his wife.
"This decision of who I marry is vital to the clan's future," Connor said when he grew tired of his friends' jests about his celibacy. "We must weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each possible alliance."
"The best match would be a daughter of the MacLeod chieftain," Ian said. "Remember, the oldest method of subduing an enemy is through the marriage bond."
"And it has the distinct advantage of requiring the sacrifice of only one man," Alex said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Alastair MacLeod will never agree to settle matters between our clans without blood," Connor said. "Besides, his daughters are too young."
"The MacLeod waited even longer than you to wed," Ian said. "Ach, he must have been well over forty."
That was unusual, indeed. The attempt on Connor's life had been a harsh reminder of his duty to produce heirs and made him decide he could wait no longer to wed. In the violent world they lived in, it was important for a chieftain to have many children, both to be assured of an heir and to have children to make marriage alliances for the clan. In fact, it was common for chieftains to "put aside" wives who could not bear children - or who could no longer do so. Connor's father and grandfather had not bothered using that excuse.
"There are plenty of other chieftains with marriageable daughters," Ian said. "The upcoming gathering is the perfect opportunity."
So many chieftains and their sons had died in the Battle of Flodden that there was an abundance of chieftains' daughters in need of highborn husbands. Connor had avoided gatherings up until now for that very reason. But the time was ripe, and the chieftains would all be at this gathering, except for the few who were still in the rebellion. The Campbell chieftain, as the king's Lieutenant of the Isles, had summoned them to re-pledge their loyalty.
"No matter which chieftain's daughter I wed, I risk offending half a dozen other chieftains." Connor rubbed his forehead. If he had five or six siblings, he could spread alliances out like the Campbells did, marrying into clans all across the Western Isles.
"Shaggy Maclean said he'd make a gift of that sweet galley we stole from him if ye wed one of his daughters," Ian said, stifling a smile.
"I don't know that I'd want a father-in-law who is half mad and threw us in his dungeon," Alex said. "Besides, we already have his boat."
"Shaggy is mad and dangerous, which is precisely the reason I'd prefer to have him fighting on our side," Connor said, taking the suggestion seriously. It made him uneasy that the Maclean chieftain had joined forces with Alastair MacLeod as of late. "If Shaggy had not gotten himself on the wrong side of the Campbells, his clan would be a good choice for the alliance."
"Ye ought to consider the qualities of the lass as well as her clan," Duncan said. "She'll be the mother of your children."
"We're proof that ye can both please yourself and serve the clan with your marriage," Ian said.
Connor had seen these three, his closest companions, find happiness beyond all reason in their marriages. Despite their jesting, he knew they wanted him to have a love match as well.
But Connor neither hoped for nor wanted that for himself. He had seen the consequences of an unruly, all-consuming passion and would never trust it. Instead, he intended to have a smooth, cordial partnership with a lass whose father had enough warriors to defeat the MacLeods.
"Pick a pretty lass who's no afraid to argue with ye," Alex said and winked. "A man needs a wife who stirs his blood."
Any lass who was breathing could stir Connor's blood. After so long without, there was not a single one he did not find overwhelmingly appealing. He was like a man dying of thirst at sea, surrounded by water he could not drink.
"Frankly, lads, ye haven't been much help," Connor said, getting to his feet.
"Ask Tearlag," Alex said, referring to the old seer as he and Ian drifted toward the door. "She'll give ye good advice, even if it makes no sense at the time."
Connor needed to get out of this room, but he stayed behind because he sensed that Duncan wished to speak with him. His head had begun pounding the moment he entered it. Like his father and grandfather before him, Connor had used this room as his private chamber. Even after he had stripped it of its ornate furnishings, he had felt his father's presence too keenly - stifling and choking him.
At his sister's insistence, the ornate furniture was back. The chamber was hers and Duncan's now that the two were wed and Connor had made Duncan keeper of this castle.
Connor hobbled over to look out the arrow-slit window. As his gaze traveled along the shore, he paused at the place where the warrior had carried his mother's body ashore all those years ago. Whenever he remembered that bleak day of his childhood, he thought of his brother Ragnall, who would have made a better chieftain.
But Ragnall, like his father, was dead, so the task fell to him.
"I'm honored that you've entrusted Dunscaith Castle to me," Duncan said.
"There are too many ghosts for me here," Connor said, though his personal reasons played no part in his decision. "I know ye will keep this castle and the surrounding lands safe for our clan."
"Have ye decided who will replace me as captain of your guard?" Duncan asked.
"I'll never find a captain who is as loyal or as fierce a warrior as you," Connor said, turning to grip his friend's shoulder. "But I'll pick a man from among our warriors once I reach Trotternish Castle."
"Choosing the wrong wife could make things unpleasant for ye." Duncan paused. "But choosing the wrong captain could get ye killed."