The Chieftain

Chapter 16


Ilysa rested her head on her chin and stared at a crack in the wall. Since returning to Dunscaith, she had barely left her mother's cottage, which was really just two rooms built against the castle wall.
She was aware that she needed to make a plan, but she felt too weighed down to even lift her head. Ever since she was a young girl, she had been accustomed to being busy from morning until night. Yet, for a week now, she had done nothing at all. Not that it mattered. She had no responsibilities.
When she heard a knock on the door, she ignored it. The knocking turned into a loud banging, and then two faces appeared in her window. Moira and Sleas, the wives of her brother and Ian, were both persistent women who would continue banging until she let them in, so she made herself get up and unbar the door.
Moira and Sleas dragged her from her cottage and into the keep. The next thing Ilysa knew, she was standing in the middle of Duncan and Moira's bedchamber while the two women looked her up and down with narrowed eyes.
"Ach, that gown must go," Moira said, shaking her head.
"I suppose we can cut it up for rags," Sleas said.
"What's wrong with my gown?" Ilysa asked. "'Tis a bit worn, but I've kept it mended."
Neither woman bothered answering, but their expressions were grim.
"The kerchief as well," Sleas said, lifting her gorgeous emerald eyes to the top of Ilysa's head.
"For certain," Moira agreed.
The two women converged on Ilysa. Before she could say a word to stop them, Sleas was pulling out the pins that held her kerchief, and Moira was unfastening the hooks at the back of her gown.
When Ilysa ducked to the side to get out of their reach, her kerchief came off in Sleas's hands. All three of them gasped as her hair came tumbling down and cascaded over her shoulders. Ilysa felt naked without her head covering. At least Sleas and Moira had stopped grabbing at her clothes, but now they stood stock-still staring at her, which was even more disconcerting.
"What is it?" Ilysa asked, stepping back. Her face was scalding hot.
"Your hair is...lovely," Sleas said in a soft voice that sounded like a sigh.
"You're being kind," Ilysa said, fixing her gaze on the floor. Her strawberry-blond hair was a poor, washed-out version of Sleas's vibrant color.
Sleas was a rare beauty, with red hair and emerald eyes, while Moira had black hair like Connor's, striking violet eyes, and the kind of voluptuous curves that left men with their tongues hanging out - unless Duncan was nearby.
"Why did ye cover this?" Moira said, running a long strand of Ilysa's hair through her fingers. "'Tis gorgeous!"
"I was married," Ilysa murmured, feeling uncomfortable with the attention.
"Ach, ye were barely married long enough to count," Moira said, dismissing long-standing custom with a wave of her hand. "And as I recall, ye always wore your hair covered, even as a wee bairn."
"My mother insisted."
Her mother had been perpetually frightened for her only daughter. Ye mustn't draw attention to yourself. Cover your hair. Speak softly. Keep your gaze down.
Until she was eleven, Ilysa sometimes rebelled against her mother's restrictions. She stopped the day Duncan was caught with Moira. After Duncan was sent away, their mother, who had never been a strong woman, was so fragile that Ilysa complied with her mother's wishes without argument.
While her manner was meek, Ilysa never felt meek. Someone had to make the decisions, and her mother was not capable. She began surreptitiously assuming her mother's duties at the castle. Over time, working in the background became so deeply ingrained that Ilysa no longer knew if it was her true nature.
"Now that we know what happened to your mother when she was young," Sleas said, referring to her mother's rape, "'tis easier to understand why she was so careful with ye."
"But she's gone now, and you're a grown woman," Moira said, taking her hand and squeezing it. "Ye don't have to hide your beauty any longer."
"Hide my beauty?" Ilysa gave a dry laugh.
"Let us show ye," Moira said with a wink at Sleas.
Sleas retrieved a comb from the side table while Moira played maid and finished unfastening Ilysa's gown. When her gown fell to the floor, leaving Ilysa in her shift, she crossed her arms over her chest - not that there was much to cover.
"Just as I suspected," Moira said, standing back and crossing her arms under her own voluptuous breasts. "You've a shape under there after all."
"I'm built like a scrawny lad," Ilysa said.
"No, you're not." Sleas gave her a warm smile. "You're as slender and dainty as a pixie."
"What color gown, Sl?" Moira asked, narrowing her eyes at Ilysa as if she were deciding how best to skin a rabbit. "Blue or green?"
"She'll need more than one," Sleas said. "Her coloring is close to mine, and we haven't much time, so I brought a few of my gowns that we can alter."
"Haven't much time for what?" Ilysa asked. "Why are ye doing this?"
The two women drew her over to the bench beneath the window and sat her down between them.
"I know ye have feelings for my brother," Moira said, taking her hand again. "But ye simply cannot devote yourself to Connor any longer. Surely ye know that now."
Ilysa knew it in her head, but her heart had not accepted it yet.
"What a lass needs to forget one man," Moira said, "is another."
"Most of the chieftains will be at the gathering at Mingary Castle," Sleas said. "And they'll each have a contingent of warriors with them."
"That means Mingary Castle will be filled to bursting with fine Highland warriors!" Moira said, her eyes sparkling. "Duncan is to meet Connor there with a galley of our men, and you and I are going with them. With all those handsome men in one place, you'll have a grand time."
"Men don't notice me," Ilysa said. "I'll only embarrass myself."
"Is this the same lass who braved a pack of pirates to spy for us when Hugh held Dunscaith?" Sleas said, raising her eyebrows.
"That wasn't so brave," Ilysa said. She'd had it all under control.
"I'll make certain ye don't hide in a corner where the men can't see ye," Moira said. "You'll have your pick of them for a husband."
"But I don't want a husband," Ilysa said.
"Ye could stay here with Duncan, me, and the children forever, if that would make ye happy," Moira said, touching her cheek. "But I don't believe it will."
Different as they were, Ilysa had grown very fond of Moira. If she stayed, Moira would do her best to make Ilysa feel useful, but she was not needed here. Dunscaith had a mistress.
"Don't tell me ye plan to live with old Tearlag and waste your life away in her wee cottage," Moira said, "or I'll have to slap sense into ye."
"Moira doesn't mean that," Sleas said, patting Ilysa's arm. "Much as we all love Tearlag, she is an old woman who's not long for this world. Ye need someone you can make a life with."
"I know Connor is the one ye want, but ye can't have him," Moira said.
"I've always known that," Ilysa said in a quiet voice.
"Ye need a husband who can give ye children," Sleas said, her eyes lighting with a soft smile. "I've seen how good ye are with mine, and I know ye want your own."
A tear slipped down Ilysa's cheek. Sleas had found a vulnerable spot. She did long for children.
"Ye need a man in your bed," Moira said.
Hmmph. That had not done Ilysa any good before.
"And there's no one who enjoys making a home more than you," Moira added. "Is uaigneach an niochan nach mbionn leine ann." It's a lonely washing that has no man's shirt in it.
"Think of it," Sleas said as she smoothed Ilysa's hair behind her ear. "You can have a family, a home of your own, and a man who will make ye happy."
* * *
"I was sick as a damned dog last night," the MacNeil chieftain said as he joined Connor and Alex, who were sitting with their legs stretched out before the hearth in the hall. "If I didn't know ye better, Connor, I'd say ye tried to poison me."
Connor rubbed his forehead. He did not doubt that the food had made Alex's father-in-law ill. Cook had taken to his bed, and the entire household was in disarray.
"This would never happen if Ilysa were here," Alex said. "Cha bhi fios aire math an tobair gus an traigh e." The value of the well is not known until it goes dry.
"Thank you for pointing that out," Connor said.
Until everything went amok, Connor had not realized that Ilysa was the reason his household ran smoothly. In truth, he was never even aware that it ran smoothly.
"Another chieftain would believe it was poison," the MacNeil said. "You'd best get your household in order before spoiled meat kills off a guest and leads to a clan war."
"This morning one of the serving maids told me - me, the chieftain - that we are low on ale," Connor confessed. "For God's sake, with the MacLeods and Hugh threatening us, I don't have time to concern myself with what goes on in the kitchens."
"What ye need is a wife," the MacNeil said. "This is no way for a man to live."
"I intend to acquire one at the gathering," Connor said.
Alastair MacLeod would be there, which meant Connor could risk leaving Skye without worrying that his enemy would launch an attack in his absence. Neither of them would break the peace until after the gathering because that would upset the Crown and risk interference.
"I'll be looking for a wife at the gathering myself," the MacNeil said, reminding Connor that Alex's father-in-law had recently lost his second wife in childbirth. When he stood, he seemed to have lost his usual proud bearing. "Now I'm returning to my bed to recover from that slop ye fed me."
"Poor man," Alex said after his father-in-law left. "He's left with a newborn babe, another young son, and Glynis's three sisters."
Alex shuddered when he mentioned the girls, who were pretty but silly and prone to giggling. They were young, but their father and Alex held out little hope the girls would outgrow it.
The MacNeil chieftain's galley would be sailing with Connor's to the gathering, while Alex remained at Trotternish Castle to serve as keeper in Connor's absence. Alex was well established on North Uist and, unlike Connor, had a good man there he could leave in charge.
"Our battle with the MacLeods could come soon after the gathering," Connor said. "I intend to return from it with the matter of the marriage alliance settled."
"Well, I know one chieftain's daughter ye can strike off your list," Alex said. "Alexander of Dunivaig won't be invited to his father-in-law's."
Connor did not tell his cousin that Deirdre was already off his list of prospective wives. If he told Alex why, he would never hear the end of it.
"Has he not come to terms with the Crown yet?" Connor asked.
"Ye could say that," Alex said with a smirk. "I heard he joined our other MacDonald relation, Donald Gallda, in attacking Mingary Castle again."
Murt! Connor's near marriage to Deirdre would have been even more disastrous than he thought. With her father still active in the rebellion - attacking his father-in-law's castle, no less - Connor could have been dragged into that lost cause, or accused of it by the Crown.
"Will the gathering still be held at Mingary Castle?" Connor asked.
"Aye, but don't be surprised if ye still smell smoke," Alex said. "Now, there's a cautionary tale about the value of a marriage alliance."
"Ye look well," Connor said to change the subject. "Perhaps it wasn't the food at my table that made your father-in-law ill after all."
"Fortunately, my thoughtful wife packed enough provisions to sink my boat, so I didn't need to risk eating that gray meat," Alex said, making a face.
"I ate it, and it didn't make me ill," Connor said, though it had tasted foul.
"That's because you're drinking enough whiskey to fend off any illness."
Connor had been drinking more of late. Who could blame him?
"At least they can't ruin the whiskey," he said and poured a large measure into each of their cups.
"Cha deoch-slaint, i gun a traghadh!" 'Tis no health if the glass is not emptied! They chanted in unison and threw it back.
Connor choked, and Alex spewed whiskey across the floor.
"What in God's name have they done to it?" Alex asked.
"Ach, they've watered it down," Connor said, shaking his head.
"This is serious." Alex pointed his finger at Connor. "Ye must remedy this situation."
Alex spoke half in jest, but something must be done and soon. Unfortunately, negotiations for a marriage between two chieftains' families generally took considerable time - unless kidnapping was employed to obtain the bride. As often as not, kidnapping led to war, so Connor could not risk it.
He would have to swallow his pride and ask Ilysa to return and restore order to his household until his wife, whoever the hell she was, arrived. While Connor would never forget being imprisoned in his own dungeon, Ilysa had saved him from marrying Deirdre, which did help him forgive her.
Odd, but he missed having her about. He had barely noticed her in all the time they were at Dunscaith. But here at Trotternish, she was one of the few people he could trust absolutely, and he had grown accustomed to sharing his thoughts with her. Without realizing it, he had come to expect her brisk step, her soft smile, and the calm that surrounded her. Connor rarely felt at ease these days, but he could be at ease with Ilysa.
That was not entirely true. When her hands were on his bare skin, every part of him was alive with awareness. While she innocently tended to his injuries, he imagined her kneading, stroking, encircling him until he was awash with guilt and throbbing with need. Thank God his wounds were nearly healed so he would not have to endure that pleasurable torture again. He would put the memory of it firmly out of his mind.
As for his dreams, well, a man was allowed those.