The Chieftain

Chapter 29


Ilysa was passing through the hall on her way to the kitchens to speak to Cook about supplies when she saw Lachlan. He stood alone, leaning against the wall next to the door that led outside. The other men respected Lachlan, but he mostly kept to himself.
When she met his gaze, Lachlan jerked his head to the side, then went out the door without a backward glance. Exasperated, she followed him outside and caught up with him between the buildings by the well.
"If ye wish to speak to me, Lachlan of Lealt," she said, putting her hand on her hip, "ask me politely."
He gave her his bored look with his eyelids half closed, but the corner of his mouth quirked up, giving away his amusement. "Ye came, didn't ye?"
Ilysa rolled her eyes, but she smiled, despite herself. "Now that you've dragged me away from my tasks, what is it ye want?"
"I've had no luck discovering who in the castle is spying for Hugh," he said. "Have you?"
"I thought I had it figured out - until ye told me it wasn't you," she said.
"I'll be leaving in the morning for a few days," Lachlan said, ignoring her remark. "The chieftain wants me to see if I can find out where Hugh's new camp is. I may hear something about this spy as well."
"I'll keep my eye out for clues here," she said.
"That's why I'm talking to ye," Lachlan said. "Don't try to uncover the spy on your own."
"I can't help looking," she said and gave him a pleasant smile.
"Don't," Lachlan said. "You're a bright lass, and ye might guess right. If the spy realizes it, you'll be in danger."
"I appreciate your concern," Ilysa said, which was what she always said when men felt compelled to give her orders she did not intend to follow. She rose up on her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek. "You be careful out there, Lachlan."
A short time later, Ilysa was enjoying a chat with Cook amid the clatter of pans and the savory smells of the midday meal preparation. She took the opportunity to ask him something that had been on her mind.
"What do ye know about the ghosts in the castle?" she asked.
"Hmmph. There's more than one now?" Cook paused in his chopping to turn to her and raise a skeptical eyebrow. "I've only heard about the nursemaid in the tower."
"Then tell me about her," Ilysa said.
"She dropped our last chieftain's baby son out the tower window," Cook said. "Ach, she was a sweet, cheerful lass, but she didn't have the sense of a turnip."
"Ye knew her?" Ilysa had assumed the tale was an old one, as ghost stories usually were.
"It only happened about twenty years ago." Cook shook his head. "God knows what that silly lass was doing hanging half out the window with the babe when he slipped from her arms."
"I thought the chieftain had no sons after Connor."
"Not by his wife, he didn't." Cook turned to the kitchen maids who were scrubbing pots behind them. "We need more meat for the stew. Go fetch that hen that's stopped laying eggs and kill it outside. I don't want that squawking in here."
"What happened to the nursemaid?" Ilysa asked.
"The chieftain ordered her cast adrift at sea in a boat," Cook said as he reached for another leek to chop. "Neither the lass nor the boat was ever seen again."
Ilysa bit her lip. It was a harsh punishment, though not unexpected for such a grave offense. The loss of a chieftain's son was a loss to the entire clan.
"Ye haven't heard about the other ghost?" Ilysa asked in a low voice, though no one else was in the kitchen now.
"The nursemaid is the only one I know of," Cook said, slanting her another skeptical glance.
"I've seen a second woman with the nursemaid and the babe." Since sleeping in Connor's bedchamber, she had awakened several times to see them. The image always faded quickly, and she was never sure if it was a vision or a dream.
Cook did not respond for a long while. When he finally did, his question surprised her.
"Have ye told Lachlan?" he asked.
"Why would I?"
"I believe your second ghost must be his mother," Cook said. "The poor soul. It was her babe who died."
"Her babe?" Ilysa asked. "Lachlan's mother had a child by our last chieftain?"
"Aye. Becoming the chieftain's mistress brought her nothing but sadness in the end." Cook set down his knife and turned to face Ilysa. "See that the same doesn't happen to you, lass."
"I didn't realize ye knew about me and Connor," Ilysa said, her cheeks going hot.
"Half the castle knows you're sharing his bed," Cook said. "The rest suspect it."
"Ye needn't fret about me," she said when he continued looking at her like a mournful dog. "I've never been so happy. Truly."
"Lachlan's mother was as joyful in the beginning as you are," he said. "Now she's a ghost who cannot rest."
* * *
Winter made a return with freezing rain that blew in gusts and hit Connor's face like pellets. He should have taken it as a sign.
They were practicing in the field outside the castle in mud up to their ankles, but no one complained. A Highland warrior had best be prepared for fighting in the rain.
"You're favoring your right side - ye may as well point to where I should strike ye," he shouted over the wind at Robbie, his practicing partner. "Aye, that's better."
Robbie was small for his age at sixteen and lacked natural talent, but the lad was determined, and the extra time Connor spent with him was paying off. In fact, all the younger men were improving.
"Connor!" someone shouted. "Isn't that your small galley headed this way?"
He glanced out to sea and, sure enough, the galley they had stolen from Shaggy Maclean was entering the bay. Before leaving the practice, Connor took one last swing and knocked Robbie backward into the mud. Next time, the young man would know to block it.
He took the steps cut into the side of the cliff two at a time and arrived on the beach just as the galley neared shore. Niall, his chestnut hair dark with rain, was alone in the boat, so Connor waded out to help haul it in.
"Am I welcome?" Niall asked with a sheepish grin.
"Get out of the damned boat and help me," Connor said.
Niall vaulted over the side, and together they carried it above the tide line.
"'Tis good to see ye," Connor said, slapping Niall on the back. "But next time ask permission before ye take my boat."
"I was under the impression that it was my boat now," Niall said as he reached inside it for his claymore and a leather bag. "Admit it, ye were planning to use her for kindling before I repaired her."
"For kindling? This beauty?" Connor said, though the galley had been nearly destroyed in a storm and looked unsalvageable before Niall got hold of it. "Never."
Connor looked forward to a long discussion over whiskey regarding who had the better right to the stolen boat. Since the MacDonalds acquired the sleek vessel from Shaggy, it had changed hands at least once on a wager.
As soon as they burst into the hall, dripping rain, mud, and seawater, Connor's eyes found Ilysa across the room, and she smiled at him. Each time he entered the castle now, he felt as if he were coming home to her. It was a good feeling. After a long moment, Ilysa's gaze shifted, and she noticed who was standing beside him.
"Niall!" She picked up her skirts and ran across the hall to throw her arms around him.
Niall blushed and grinned while he hugged her longer than Connor thought necessary. "Let her be," he said. "You're getting her all wet."
After finally setting Ilysa on her feet, Niall swept his gaze over her. "I haven't grown accustomed to ye looking so fetching."
Ach, it appeared Niall had acquired his older brother's charm. Time to hide the women.
"Change out of those wet clothes before ye catch your death," Ilysa told Niall.
"Can I eat first? I'm starving," Niall said, sounding young again. While Ilysa sent servants scurrying, Niall thrust a sealed parchment into Connor's hands and, pitching his voice low, said, "Ian sent me with this as soon as it arrived."
With a sinking heart, Connor recognized the MacIain chieftain's seal. He stuck the missive inside his shirt to read in private. Would it say MacIain was coming or no? Either way, it could be nothing but bad news.