The Chieftain

Chapter 13


Are ye well?" Lachlan asked Ilysa when he met her on the steps of the keep. He had not seen her at breakfast, and she was pale and drawn.
She ignored his question and asked, "Has the chieftain returned?"
"The men who went with him came back in ones and twos during the night," Lachlan said.
"But not Connor?" she asked, her face going still paler.
"Not yet."
"Do ye know what happened?" she asked.
"I'm told they were surprised by two galleys full of MacLeod warriors," Lachlan said since there was no point in attempting to keep the truth from her. "When they couldn't reach their boat to escape, they split up to make it harder for the MacLeods to track them."
Perhaps he should be glad if they had killed Connor and saved him the trouble of settling his blood feud, but Lachlan could not be happy about any attack on his clan. When he turned his attention back to Ilysa, the lass was weaving on her feet.
"Sit down before ye faint on me," Lachlan said and sat with her on the steps.
"I don't faint," she said, and he didn't bother arguing with her.
Sorely came out of the keep then. When he saw them, he put his hands on his hips and looked them up and down. Lachlan had made an enemy when he knocked Sorely on his arse and took his sword in front of all the men. He suspected Sorely's sour attitude toward him was the reason Connor had not trusted him enough to take him on his night forays.
"You'd better have a damned good explanation for why we couldn't find ye last night," Sorely said in a tone that made Lachlan want to plant his fist in his face.
"Go to hell," Lachlan said. "You're not my keeper."
"We'll see about that," Sorely said.
Sorely was expecting to be named captain of Connor's guard, but it hadn't happened yet. Still, Lachlan should try harder to tolerate the man. He did not need to give anyone a reason to watch his movements too closely.
"Where were ye last night?" Ilysa asked after Sorely had huffed off.
Lachlan ignored her, hoping she would let it go, though he already knew her well enough to recognize that as a useless hope.
"Tell me ye had nothing to do with what happened," she said.
"I would never bring the MacLeods down on us," he said. "Never."
"I know you're a good man," Ilysa said, touching his arm, "and that you're contemplating doing something that troubles ye gravely."
Lachlan was not accustomed to having anyone read him so well. When he glanced sideways and met her honest brown eyes, he reminded himself that Ilysa was a bigger threat to him than Sorely. Ilysa had the chieftain's trust, and somehow she could see into the blackness of Lachlan's soul.
"Listen to your conscience," she said, "and don't do this."
Lasses liked to take him to bed, but having one fret over his conscience was new to him.
"Whatever it is, you must give it up and help Connor," she said. "He is the hope of our clan, the only man who stands between us and having Hugh as our chieftain."
"I'm here, aren't I?" he said. "Though I can't see where it makes much difference which of them is chieftain."
It was a mistake to admit that - Ilysa gripped his arm with surprising strength for such a tiny thing. By the saints, the lass was persistent.
"It makes all the difference," she said. "I was at Dunscaith when Hugh took it and proclaimed himself chieftain. Hugh did nothing while the MacKinnons attacked Knock Castle and the MacLeods took Trotternish from us."
"It wasn't Hugh's fault our former chieftain took our warriors off to fight the English and left us vulnerable to our enemies."
"I was there," she said in an insistent tone, enunciating each word. "Knock Castle is only five miles from Dunscaith. Yet, when our men came from there begging for help, Hugh sat with two lasses on his lap laughing and drinking. We could see the flames and still he did nothing."
The bastard. Lachlan was shaken by her words. And yet, from what he had seen of Hugh, they rang true. "I doubt our former chieftain would have done any better," he said.
"Connor's father had his faults, but he would never have sat behind his castle walls feasting while our enemies took our lands," Ilysa said. "And neither would Connor."
Lachlan had been raised on his father's hatred of their former chieftain. Revenge was the reason for the constant training from the time he could walk. Lachlan tried to dismiss Ilysa's words, but he had never once heard a story of the former chieftain's cowardice, and no lands had been taken from them while he lived. The same could not be said of Hugh.
As for Connor, he risked his life every night he left the castle.
"Hugh brought his foul, clanless pirates into Dunscaith Castle," Ilysa said, "and no woman or child was safe."
"Did they hurt ye?" The thought of someone harming her made Lachlan feel ill. For some damned reason, he'd grown fond of Ilysa. Probably because her stubbornness reminded him of his sister.
"I made certain they heard I was learning the Old Ways," she said with a small smile. "They feared I would curse them."
"If Hugh and his men were so foul, why were you there at all?"
"To spy on Hugh, of course," she said. "I knew that the four of them - my brother, Connor, and Connor's cousins - would return as soon as they learned the clan was in danger, and they would need someone inside the castle."
Ilysa would make a better spy than he did, for certain. With her innocent face and quiet demeanor, no one would suspect her.
"Connor needs ye," Ilysa said. "For the sake of the clan, ye must help him."
Lachlan did not remind her that Connor could already be dead. Nor did he tell her that he wished he could change his course. The demands of honor were inflexible and unforgiving, and so must he be.
"There's a man crossing the field to the castle," one of the guards shouted from the wall.
Ilysa bolted from the steps, and Lachlan ran with her to the gate.
An unexpected rush of relief coursed through Lachlan when the guards flung the gate open and he saw the tall, black-haired figure in the midst of the broad, empty field.
"Praise God!" Ilysa said, pressing her hand to her chest.
Connor was using a thick stick as a crutch, and his sleeve was bloody, but he shouted a greeting and waved. The chieftain had survived another brush with death.
He was a hard man to kill, in more ways than one.
* * *
"Can I speak with ye?" Sorely asked from the doorway of Connor's chamber.
Sorely shifted his weight from foot to foot and flicked his gaze around the room. Connor was surprised to see him here at all. It had taken him a while to figure out why Sorely was always slow to answer a summons to come to Connor's chamber, never took guard duty at his door, and generally waited to speak with him until he was in the hall or the courtyard.
The tough old warrior was shaking in his boots for fear he would see the nursemaid's ghost.
"There is no ghost," Connor said. "I've been here a fortnight, and I haven't seen her once."
"There! She's there!" Sorely said, pointing toward the tower door. "Don't ye see her?"
Connor sighed. God help him, this was one of his best warriors. Once a story like the one about the nursemaid got started, people were likely to imagine they saw her ghost for centuries. Connor only hoped Alastair MacLeod had a few ghosts of his own to deal with.
"I'm telling ye, there is no ghost, but let's go down to the hall," Connor said, deciding there was no sense in torturing the man.
He used the stick for a crutch going down the stairs, though he was healing so quickly he hardly needed it.
"We must be cautious that no one overhears," Sorely said in his usual gruff voice as they entered the hall. Apparently, he did not fear that the ghost had chased them down the stairs.
"What is it?" Connor asked once they stood in a quiet corner.
"Someone alerted the MacLeods that we were going to that cottage," Sorely said.
Connor thought it far more likely that whoever betrayed them had told Hugh, expecting him to do the dirty task of eliminating Connor himself, rather than use the MacLeods. It was one thing for a MacDonald man to favor Hugh over Connor as chieftain and quite another to betray the clan to the MacLeods.
"Who do ye think told?" Connor asked.
"I can't say for certain," Sorely said, "but there's something ye ought to know about Lachlan of Lealt - something no one's had the ballocks to tell ye."
"I told no one where we were going but the men we took with us."
"One of them could have told Lachlan," Sorely said with a shrug. "Or he could have overheard them talking."
"I suppose." Connor hoped to hell it was not his best warrior in the castle who betrayed them.
"Lachlan wouldn't need to know our destination," Sorely added. "If he alerted the MacLeods in which direction we went, they could easily have watched for our boat."
Anyone could have done that. "What is it I should know about Lachlan that makes ye suspect him?"
"Lachlan's mother was one of your father's women," Sorely said. "She was married to Lachlan's father at the time, but ye know how the chieftain was about the lasses. When he wanted one, he had to have her."
Connor did know about his father and women. "I can't mistrust all the relatives of every lass my father bedded," Connor said. "That would be half the clan."
"There's more," Sorely said, glancing back at the doorway to the adjoining building. "It was her son that the nursemaid dropped out the tower window."
Connor had assumed the ghost story was as old as the castle. It took him a moment to realize what this meant.
"That was my father's child who died?" Christ, he never knew he had a brother besides Ragnall. And that babe was Lachlan's brother as well.
"The chieftain put Lachlan's mother aside after the accident," Sorely said. "She killed herself by jumping off those two-hundred-foot bluffs between Lealt and Staffin Bay."
Was there no end to the grief his father had caused with his careless philandering?
"Some say she did it out of grief over losing the babe. Others say it was because your father lost interest in her." Sorely paused. "But Lachlan's father believed the chieftain forced his wife into his bed and that she killed herself for shame."
"I'm glad ye told me," Connor said, rubbing his forehead against the headache that had started pounding, "though it doesn't mean Lachlan is the one who betrayed me."
In the Highlands, grudges were passed from father to son for generations. Yet he and Lachlan shared the loss of a brother whom neither had a chance to know. Perhaps it was foolish, but Connor felt that loss created some kind of bond between them. While he would watch Lachlan closely, he prayed that Lachlan would not turn out to be his enemy.
* * *
That night, for the first time since he left Dunscaith, Connor dreamed of his mother. In his dream, he was on the beach as a child, hugging his knees against the cold and his fear.
"My curse on you!" his mother cried out as her hair blew around her like writhing snakes. "May your seed dry up, Donald Gallach...May your sons already born by other women die young..."
Connor felt as if he were looking down upon his child self while his nursemaid, Anna, tried to comfort his mother.
He sat up straight in bed, suddenly awake. He remembered what his mother had said to Anna that night. He's been keeping a woman up at Trotternish Castle - and she's borne him a son!
The woman she spoke of must have been Lachlan's mother and the son the babe who died. Pain seared through Connor as words he had forgotten for years and years rang in his ears.
May your sons already born by other women die young.
He had heard her chant as she circled the fire without comprehending it. His mother had cursed Ragnall, his older brother who had loved and protected him, and that innocent babe. Connor was the only son of his father's to survive. For such an evil, perhaps he did deserve to be punished.
Eventually, Connor recalled that he did still have one brother living, though he had never met him. Torquil MacLeod of Lewis was the son his mother had abandoned, along with her first husband, to marry Connor's father.
Connor lay awake until dawn, contemplating the hatreds that plagued his family. Between the rebellions and the rivalries among the clans, violent death was commonplace in the Highlands. But among Connor's closest kin, death usually came by the hand of one of their own.
Though this should serve as a warning, Connor decided he wanted to extend the hand of friendship to his last remaining brother.