The Chieftain

Chapter 20


Why are ye taking Ilysa back to Trotternish?" Moira asked, her eyes blazing.
"Because my household is in chaos without her," Connor said.
"How can ye be so inconsiderate?" Moira asked.
"Calm down," Connor said. "I've no idea why you're upset."
"Men!" Moira said, raising her hands and looking to the heavens. "I finally persuade Ilysa to get out of those ugly gowns and headdresses, and she has men following her around - half a dozen of them serious about wedding her, I might add - and my brother the chieftain decides to bury her at Trotternish Castle and ruin her chances."
"Ruin her chances for what?" Connor asked.
"For happiness!" Moira said. "That lass is so devoted to ye that she'll sacrifice everything for ye - anyone can see that."
Connor always knew Ilysa was devoted to the clan. But devoted to him?
"Ilysa enjoys keeping my household," he said. "And it will only be until I conclude negotiations for my marriage and my wife arrives."
"Don't ask this of her," Moira said, leaning forward with her hands on her hips.
Ach, MacDonald women were the most stubborn, willful women in all of the Highlands. And as for his sister, well, they had not called her Princess Moira as children for nothing.
"Does Ilysa want to marry any of these men?" he asked after taking a deep breath.
"Not yet, but she will," Moira said. "Ilysa loves children. She deserves a husband and family of her own."
Ilysa, married? It was hard to think of it.
"Ye seem to have forgotten that it's your duty to help a widow find a new husband," Moira said.
Moira was right about that. As chieftain, his duty to safeguard his clan was all-encompassing and included protecting them from attack, feeding them in famine, and, unfortunately, finding husbands for widows. Connor would rather fight a hundred MacLeods than matchmake. And finding the right man for Ilysa would not be easy. He would have to be a strong warrior who could protect her, but also a kind man.
"If ye let her be, Ilysa will have no trouble finding a husband on her own," Moira said, folding her arms.
"As ye just reminded me, it is my duty to make certain she weds a good man," he said, "if she wishes to marry at all."
"Ilysa deserves happiness," Moira said. "Give her a chance to find it."
* * *
Ilysa watched for Alastair MacLeod. When he did not appear in the hall for the midday meal, she decided to find him. Duncan had assigned Niall to escort her if she left the keep, but he was speaking with Lady Philippa so evading him would be easy. In fact, she worried that Niall was the one who needed guarding.
Ilysa guessed that a chieftain of the MacLeod's stature would be given a chamber inside the castle and asked a serving maid.
"The MacLeod is in the West Tower," the maid told her.
Ilysa found two enormous MacLeod warriors guarding a door on the second floor of the tower.
"I'm a healer, and I've brought a salve for your chieftain," she said and held out the jar.
The guards exchanged glances. Instead of taking the jar from her, one of them went inside. A few moments later, he returned and demanded her name.
The guard opened the door and jerked his head to the side to indicate she should enter.
"I don't need to see your chieftain," she said. "I only brought the salve."
"Go in." The guard gave her a look that said she could walk in or he could carry her.
Ilysa felt uneasy about entering the MacLeod chieftain's chamber. As soon as she crossed the threshold and saw him, however, her uneasiness vanished. His face was drawn with pain. She sat on the stool next to his chair.
"I brought that salve I promised ye."
"It won't help," he said.
"This is always a good salve." She held it up for his inspection. "But this particular batch has special healing powers."
"Lilies?" he asked after sniffing it, just as Connor had. "What makes it special?"
Ilysa hesitated to tell him, but she knew the salve would ease his pain and she wanted to persuade him to use it. "I collected the water lilies from a faery glen on a night of the full moon."
She had seen the lilies in a pond amid the odd, conical hills as she left the glen that night and had stopped long enough to cut a few and put them into her bag.
"The faery glen on Trotternish?" Alastair MacLeod asked. When she nodded, he said, "You're a brave lass. Ye weren't afraid to go there?"
"If I'd seen a faery - or a MacLeod - I might have been," she said with a smile. "'Tis a wondrous, magical place."
* * *
Connor's conversation with Moira put him in a foul mood, and the prospect of the discussion he was about to have with the MacIain chieftain made it worse.
"Your chieftain is expecting me," Connor told the men guarding the door to his host's private chamber and waited while one of them went inside to announce him.
"Just the man I want to see!" The MacIain greeted Connor and slapped him on the back. The man made Connor's skin crawl, but personal feelings had no place in this.
Connor had thought it through very carefully and concluded that an alliance with MacIain would be advantageous to his clan in every regard. In addition to MacIain's warriors, fleet of galleys, and marriage tie to the Campbells, MacIain's close relationship with the Crown would be useful. Connor hoped that, once he took possession of Trotternish, MacIain could persuade the Crown to grant him the royal charter as well.
"I thought I was to meet your granddaughter," Connor said, glancing about the room, which was devoid of females.
"And you shall." The MacIain signaled for Connor to sit at the table. "I wanted to discuss all the important matters first."
Connor had hoped to meet the lass before this went much further. Although his personal feelings did not count for much, he would be seeing this woman at his table morning, noon, and night for the rest of his life. It felt like a death sentence.
"My granddaughter doesn't take after me in looks, if that's your concern," MacIain said with a gruff laugh.
God, I hope not. MacIain had pockmarked skin, bulging fish eyes, and bow legs.
"She's looking forward to meeting you as well," MacIain said as he poured whiskey into the two cups on the table. "When I asked her which of our guests I should choose for her husband, she pointed at you, and said, 'I want that handsome, black-haired MacDonald chieftain.'"
Tearlag's words rang in Connor's ears. The lass will choose you. Surely, this was a sign.
"Fond as I am of my granddaughter, I'd never let her decide such an important matter, of course," MacIain said. "However, her choice coincides with mine. She was born three months after my son's death and has spent far too many years in the Lowlands with her mother's clan for my liking. I want to see her wed to a strong Highlander."
Connor sipped his whiskey. The lass's Lowlander upbringing made him uneasy. "It's a hard life for a lass unaccustomed to it."
"Ach, she has the heart of a MacIain," he said, which Connor did not find reassuring.
"What do you hope to gain from this alliance," Connor asked, "other than a man who will be good to your granddaughter?" No matter MacIain's affection for his granddaughter, or pretense of it, they both knew that was secondary.
"I'll expect ye to respond to my call to arms, should I need ye at some future time," MacIain said.
Connor's pledge would require him to honor the call, no matter what the cause might be. As he had told Ilysa, this was the unavoidable cost of recovering his clan's lands and protecting his people. He hoped to hell that when MacIain called on him it was for a fight that did not turn his stomach.
He and the MacIain went back and forth on the bride's tochar, or dowry, and other terms until they reached agreement.
"Can I have the pleasure of meeting your granddaughter now?" Connor asked. He had made it clear earlier that he would not sign a marriage contract until he met the bride. Now that the terms were settled, however, it would be awkward to extricate himself.
"Sadly, she fell ill last night," the MacIain said. "She's a hardy lass, but I fear she'll be unable to leave her bed for a few days."
The timing of her illness was suspicious, to say the least. Connor could not remain here much longer, and MacIain damned well knew it. Was there something wrong with the lass that MacIain did not want Connor to see? Or did MacIain have some other reason for delay?
"The battle for Trotternish will come soon," Connor said, reiterating his key demand. "I must know that you will support me with your warriors and galleys."
"That is the tricky part, isn't it?" the MacIain said, folding his hands.
"What are ye saying?" Connor kept his voice even, but he was so furious he felt as if his head would explode.
"Now that the MacLeod has left the rebellion, ye won't find another chieftain here who is willing to take on the MacLeods with ye."
"Several expressed an interest in a marriage alliance." Even as he said it, Connor recalled how the other chieftains' enthusiasm seemed to wane each time he brought up the coming battle for Trotternish. Several had even suggested he should be content with the lands he had.
"Everyone can see that if ye survive your present troubles, you'll be a powerful force in the isles, the kind of chieftain anyone would want for an ally," MacIain said, spreading out his hands. "But right now, they're no willing to help ye fight the MacLeods."
And Connor was supposed to feel flattered by this?
"I am, however, in a stronger position than most to take the risk," the MacIain continued. "I'll need some time to grease the pig, so to speak, and discuss it with the Campbell chieftain, who may be upset by my attacking one of the Crown's new supporters."
Time was running out. While MacIain professed to be greasing the pig, Connor could not enter into serious negotiations for a marriage with another clan. He certainly could not do it while in MacIain's home. And yet, without a signed marriage contract - or a bride - there was nothing certain about his arrangement with the MacIain.
"Three weeks is all I can wait." Connor stood. "Bring your warriors and your granddaughter to Trotternish Castle before Beltane or there will be no marriage alliance between us."