The Chieftain

Chapter 2


A sense of freedom washed over Connor as he sailed away from Dunscaith Castle. He would have lived the rest of his life there if that met the needs of the clan, but praise God it did not. Every day at Dunscaith he lived in the shadow of two men - his father, whom he had never been able to please, and his older brother, whose place he had taken.
Before heading north to the far end of the island, he directed his men to pull onto the beach below Tearlag's cottage, which was perched high on a cliff overlooking the sea. The questions he meant to put to the clan's ancient seer were private, so he left his guard in the galley. The steps cut into the stone cliff were black and slippery with rain, and his injured leg gave him some trouble.
He forgot Ilysa was behind him until he heard her cough.
"Careful," he said, turning to offer his hand to her.
"Does your leg pain ye badly?" she asked.
"No," he lied.
Tearlag was not waiting for them at the top of the cliff, as she usually did. Perhaps the old seer was losing her gift. When he reached her cottage, he knocked on the weathered door, then pushed it open.
"I'm no losing The Sight," Tearlag greeted him, glaring at him with her one good eye. "Has becoming chieftain gone to your head, lad? Ye can't expect an old woman to stand out in the rain waiting for ye."
While she spoke, her cow mooed in complaint from behind the half wall that divided the cottage.
"I see you and your cow are as cheerful as ever," Connor said, holding back a smile.
Tearlag had two plaids wrapped around her and was so short and hunched over that he could not tell if she was standing or sitting until she shuffled over to the table where Ilysa was unpacking the basket of food she had brought. Connor was relieved that she looked no worse than the last time he saw her. When he handed her the jug of whiskey he'd brought, the old woman's wrinkled face brightened.
"There's a good lad," she said as she retrieved her cup from the shelf above the table.
"I'm making Trotternish Castle my home," Connor said. "I wished to pay my respects before I go."
"Hmmph, that's no why ye came." Tearlag poured a large measure of whiskey into her cup. After she drank it down, she fixed her good eye on him. "Ye came because ye fear I'll be dead before ye come back."
Connor did not bother denying it, though that was not his only reason. He sat at the table and nodded his thanks to Ilysa, who had eased the jug out of Tearlag's hand and poured him a cup.
"I wish to know what ye foresee for the clan," he said. "Do ye have any warnings I should heed to protect our people?"
"I told ye before," she said, looking sour again. "The clan's future depends upon ye wedding the right lass."
Connor had only been eleven or twelve at the time, though he remembered it well enough. He and the other lads had asked her about their future because they longed to hear about their great feats as warriors. Instead, she had disappointed them with predictions about women.
"I did harbor some hope," he said, "that in fifteen years ye might have gained a clearer picture regarding what lass I ought to choose."
"Ach, ye don't listen," she said. "I told ye that the lass will choose you."
Connor's chest was throbbing from the arrow wound, and the old seer was trying his patience. His bride would be a chieftain's daughter and would have no choice over the matter. Their marriage would be an alliance between two clans, agreed upon between Connor and the lass's father.
"I feel a vision coming," Tearlag called out in a strange voice.
Connor suspected Tearlag was warming up to re-enact a vision she'd had earlier, if she was not making it up altogether. The old woman did like to make a show of her gift.
Ilysa helped the old seer turn on her stool to face the hearth, then tossed a handful of the herbs Tearlag used to enhance her visions onto the fire, causing it to spit and crackle. After drawing in several deep breaths of the pungent smoke, Tearlag fell into an alarming fit of hacking. Connor started to get up, but Ilysa shook her head and helped the old seer turn around to face him again.
Tearlag laid her palms flat on the table and closed her eyes. Then she swayed from side to side on her stool while making an unnerving humming sound. Finally, she opened her eyes and drank the draught of whiskey Ilysa had poured for her.
By the saints, how could such a wee old woman drink so much whiskey?
"'Tis just a wee nip," Tearlag objected.
Connor kept forgetting that the seer could read minds.
"Take care who ye trust, Connor MacDonald," Tearlag said, wagging a gnarled finger at him. "There are many who mean ye harm."
He did not need a seer to tell him that. If he forgot, he had the wounds in his chest and leg to remind him.
"Ye believe ye can decide everything here," she said, tapping the wispy gray hair at her temple. Her breathing was labored as she came around the tiny table to stand in front of him and lay a hand on his chest. "When the time comes for ye to choose who to put your faith in, forget what your head is telling ye and listen to your heart."
The old seer freely mixed advice with foretelling, and Connor suspected this was the former.
"Can ye advise me which clan chieftain I should seek to make an alliance with?" Before she could chastise him again, he added, "Then he can advise his daughter to choose me."
"Don't forget, 'tis no the lass's clan - nor her father - that you'll be sharing a bed with." The old seer cackled and slapped her hand on the table.
Ach, she was as bad as Alex. Connor would wed a lass who looked like a mule if it would save his clan. Still, he hoped his bride would be fair. Surely that would make it easier to be content with only her. He was so desperate to have a woman in his bed that he'd be happy at first with any lass who was warm and willing. But a lifetime? He did not like to think about it.
"Look for your bride among the faeries," Tearlag said.
"The faeries?" What in the hell was she talking about?
Connor feared the old woman had lost her gift for foretelling, for which she was famed throughout the isles. That was a shame, for she had helped guide MacDonald chieftains through troubled times for many, many years, and there was no one to replace her.
"I need a word with Ilysa," Tearlag said.
"Ilysa?" The lass was so quiet that Connor had forgotten her again.
"Now be a good lad and wait outside," Tearlag said, as if he were still a boy of ten instead of her chieftain.
If anyone else called him a good lad and ordered him out, he'd have their heads. But it was hard to take offense at the old seer's lack of respect when she had treated his father the same. Besides, Connor was inordinately fond of her, and she had saved his life when he'd been badly injured soon after his return to Skye. He had been so close to death that he had seen an angel hovering over him.
"It wasn't me who saved ye," Tearlag said as he leaned down to kiss her weathered cheek. "I gave ye up for dead."
Alas, the old woman's mind had grown confused as well. He hoped he would see her again in this life.
While he stood outside with rain dripping down the back of his neck and his chest aching, Connor wondered what the old seer could have to say to Ilysa that he could not hear. A secret remedy for a headache or warts? No doubt, the old woman would miss Ilysa. She took good care of Tearlag, visiting her often and bringing her baskets of food.
For the first time, it crossed his mind to wonder why Ilysa had chosen to go to Trotternish Castle. He had given each member of his household the choice of remaining at Dunscaith Castle, and all the others had chosen to stay. He'd probably never know her reasons. Ilysa was a lass who kept her thoughts to herself.
* * *
"While I'm away," Ilysa said, "Connor's sister Moira will make certain someone brings ye provisions regularly."
"You're a kind lass," Tearlag said. "Tell me what is troubling ye?"
"Duncan doesn't want me to go with Connor," Ilysa said and made herself stop twisting the skirt of her gown in her hands.
"Ye never do what your brother tells ye, except when it suits ye," the old seer said. "That's no what's making ye uneasy."
"I could live here with you instead." Ilysa glanced around the small cottage and wondered whether it would be worse to share a bed with Tearlag or the cow.
"Duncan is right to worry, child," Tearlag said. "The path before ye is full of danger, but ye must go all the same."
"Why must I?" Ilysa asked, though she'd had the same feeling.
"It would serve no purpose to tell Connor, who's decided I'm an old fool," Tearlag said, waving her hand dismissively. "But his future is hazy in my visions. I fear he may not live to see the summer."
Her words sent a jolt of fear through Ilysa.
"Connor must live! Our clan depends upon his survival." I depend upon it.
"Our young chieftain will need you to see dangers that he cannot," the seer said. "Trust yourself, and ye may save his life."
"Me?" Ilysa asked. "How am I to do that?"
"Ach, ye think far too little of yourself. Remember, ye carry the blood of the Sea Witch of legend, who built Dunscaith Castle in a single night," Tearlag said, leaning forward and blinking her good eye. "And ye were born at midnight."
"That doesn't mean I have The Sight like you do," Ilysa said.
"Hmmph, no one has the gift like I do," Tearlag said. "But The Sight comes to ye sometimes, doesn't it? Ye sense things coming."
"Perhaps," Ilysa whispered and dropped her gaze to her hands, which were folded in her lap. "But not often, and 'tis never clear."
"With you, lass, The Sight is strongest where your heart is," Tearlag said. "That is why ye will see the danger to Connor when no one else does."
Ilysa turned her face away, embarrassed that Tearlag knew how she felt about Connor.
"I've taught ye the spells of protection," Tearlag said. "But most of all, ye must trust your instincts, for that is The Sight speaking to ye."
"I'll do what I can," Ilysa said.
Was she fooling herself into believing that Connor needed her, or should she admit, at least to herself, that she was going simply because she needed to be near him? Regardless, she listened carefully while Tearlag told her of the places on Trotternish where the old magic was strongest.
"There will come a time when ye must part from Connor," Tearlag said, patting Ilysa's arm with her gnarly hand. "It can't be helped. Ye will know when."
Ilysa already knew. When Connor took a wife, she would be gone.
"Tell me" - Ilysa paused to lick her dry lips - "will the lass Connor weds make him happy?" If so, she could bear leaving him.
"Our chieftain can only find happiness if he weds the lass who chooses him on Beltane night," Tearlag said.
Then two months is all I have left with him.
"But for that to happen," the old seer said, "Connor must live to see Beltane."