The Chieftain (Chapter 10)

Luck was against them.

Connor cursed under his breath. This time of year, he should have been able to count on a heavy mist to hide the boat. Instead a full moon shone bright on the sea. Their galley would be visible to any MacLeod who might be watching from the opposite side of the sea inlet that separated the Trotternish Peninsula from the traditional lands of the MacLeods.

"Hug the shore as close as ye can," Connor whispered in the ear of the man at the rudder. The other MacDonald warriors in the galley were silent, keenly aware of how well sound traveled over water on a clear, cold night.

"That's the place," the man next to Connor said in a hushed voice as he pointed toward a dark cottage with a gray plume of smoke rising from its chimney into the star-filled sky.

Each night, Connor took a handful of his warriors out under cover of darkness to visit homes of MacDonalds who had not yet left or been forced out in the face of the threat from the MacLeods. This was the farthest they had ventured from the castle, and it was also the closest to the MacLeods' home territory, where they were strongest.

Connor felt his men's tension as their small galley glided to shore. He flicked his gaze up and down the shoreline, ready to give the signal to reverse oars should enemy warriors spring from the bushes shouting their battle cry. All he heard in the still night was the rustle of reeds brushing against the side of the boat and the flap of wings when a startled waterbird took flight.

The steel blade of his claymore made the familiar whoosh as he pulled it from its scabbard. He dropped over the side into icy water up to his thighs. With barely a ripple, his men followed him into the water. Together, they hauled the galley onto the shore and hid it under low-hanging trees.

All Connor's senses were alert to danger as he and his five men climbed single-file up the small bluff to the cottage. He neither saw nor heard anything suspicious. And yet, he felt as if someone was watching them from the darkness.

Once again, he wished Ian, Duncan, or Alex were with him. They had saved each other's lives countless times, and he could trust them absolutely. Though he had hand-selected the warriors who accompanied him tonight, he did not know them well, except for Sorely. He would have added Lachlan to the group, but he could not find him.

When they reached the cottage, Connor held his sword at the ready while Sorely rapped on the door, his fist making a hollow sound on the weathered wood.

"'Tis me, Sorely." His soft voice sounded unnaturally loud after their long silence.

The door opened a crack, and a beak-nosed face peered out.

"Open up," Sorely said. "I've brought our new chieftain."

Connor wondered how long he would be known as the "new" chieftain.

The beak-nosed man stepped back inside, and the door creaked open wide. If Duncan or his cousins were here, one of them would have gone in first to make certain it was not a trap. Connor was not afraid of death for himself, but his death would very likely lead to Hugh being made chieftain – and that would destroy the clan.

To succeed in his mission to assure the clan's future, however, he needed more than the fealty of his clansmen. He needed warriors who were fierce in their loyalty and willing to die at his side. Highlanders respected fearlessness, whether it was foolish or no.

Connor stepped over the cottage's threshold, praying it was not an ambush.

Inside, a dozen men, mostly farmers, crowded the cottage. Connor swept his gaze over the men, the lone woman standing by the hearth, and the children peeking out from the loft overhead.

He signaled for three of the warriors who accompanied him to stand guard outside. With three, they could keep an eye on each other, as well as watch for MacLeods.

"I am Connor, great-grandson of the Lord of the Isles, grandson of Hugh, the first MacDonald of Sleat, and son of Donald Gallach, our last chieftain." Though it would be safer for all of them if this meeting was over quickly, the men would expect a certain amount of formality from their chieftain. "Beannachd air an taigh." A blessing on this house.

"M��le failte oirbh," a thousand welcomes, his beak-nosed host greeted him. "I am Malcom."

As each man introduced himself, Connor fixed the name and face in his mind. Then he said, "Tell me how you and your families on this side of Trotternish fare."

"Our children are hungry," one man spoke up, "and our women fear we cannot protect them."

Connor listened patiently while several of the men took turns speaking.

"We hold Trotternish Castle again, but taking back all of the peninsula will be a more difficult task," he told them. "Every man must be a warrior and join in the fight if we are to remove the MacLeods and make your families safe from attack."

There was a general rumble of agreement from the men.

"When the time comes to fight, I will send the crann tara," Connor said. The crann tara was a wooden cross that had been set on fire and then dipped in blood to extinguish the flame. It was the traditional method for raising the clan. "Every man who sees it will be expected to pass the word."

There was another rumble of agreement, then one man asked, "Where shall the clan gather?"

"It must be near here." That was the reason Connor had come to this particular place tonight. "The MacLeod warriors are spread thin among our own people here on Trotternish. Their strength lies on the other side of the Snizort River, so we must stop them there."

The room was quiet as the men took this in.

"Where is a good place for us to rally?" Connor asked. "It should be a place all our people know and can find in the night, without alerting the MacLeods."

As Connor shifted his gaze from man to man, each shook his head.

"What about a place men fear to go?" The voice belonged to the lone woman by the hearth. She was an attractive, plump woman in her midthirties, whom Connor assumed was Malcom's wife and the mother of the children in the loft.

"Hush," Malcom said, but Connor signaled for her to go on.

He had an inkling of what the woman meant and thought it a clever idea, though it did not appear to sit well with the men.

"There are three such places nearby," she said. "First is the graveyard on the island in the Snizort River, where the old church dedicated to Saint Columba is."

Connor felt the room grow tense. No man wanted to mingle with the dead after dark.

"We'd risk bringing ill luck upon us by disrespecting the dead chieftains and warriors who rest there," Connor said. "Where else?"

"The faery glen," the woman said. "'Tis hidden away, and the MacLeods won't go near it, day or night."

"That's because they're no fools," one of the men said.

"Riling the faeries is even more dangerous than disturbing dead chieftains," another said.

"And the third place?" Connor asked, though he was beginning to think he should have let her husband hush her.

"The standing stone," she said. "It doesn't hold much magic except at the solstice, and it can be good magic. All the same, most folk avoid it at night."

"It's on a hill that overlooks the sea inlet, not far from the river," Sorely said. "'Tis a good choice."

"Then it's settled. When I raise the clan with the crann tara, we'll meet at the standing stone." Connor let his gaze move from man to man until each of them nodded. Then he signaled for the men to keep their voices down and raised his fist. "We will take the MacLeods by land and by sea!"

All the men in the room raised their fists and repeated the MacDonald motto. "By land and by sea!"

The moment Connor stepped out of the cottage door, he knew something was wrong. The men he had left standing guard appeared unaware of the threat. Connor stood still, listening and staring out into the night. He sensed no movement to his left or to his right.

As he peered out at the dark water, two war galleys made a silent appearance around the jut of land to the south. In the moonlight, he could see the row of shields along the length of the boats, each of which would carry thirty to fifty warriors.

Connor had six men, counting himself.

There were far too many enemy warriors to fight, and Connor could not afford to lose any of his. As he watched, the war galleys turned into the cove, which made it impossible for Connor and his men to reach their own galley and escape by sea.

By now his men had gathered around him.

"Our best chance is to split up and run like hell," Connor said in a hushed voice. "We'll meet back at the castle. Now go!"

As the men ran off, Connor went back inside to warn the others.

"Ye must be silent! MacLeod warriors are landing," he told them. "Everyone, run!"

Connor held the door, urging them to hurry, as he watched the MacLeod galleys glide into shore. The men left quickly, but it seemed to take a lifetime for the woman and her husband to gather their children. Tension thrummed through Connor as he watched the line of children climbing down the ladder from the loft. Jesu, how many did the couple have?

"Get your wife and children out quickly," he called to Malcom. "Hurry! Hurry!"

"Leave him to take care of his own children," Sorely said, pulling at Connor's arm. "Ye must escape. I'll stay at your side."

It seemed unlikely that two galleys full of MacLeod warriors happened upon them. Until Connor knew which man had betrayed him, he was not traveling alone with any of them, not even Sorely.

"Go," Connor said. "I'll find my own way back."

"But – "

"I said go," Connor commanded.

By the time Malcom and his wife had herded the last of the children out the door, Connor heard the thuds of feet running up the hill from the beach.

As he swung the door closed behind them, Connor caught sight of a curly-headed bairn coming down the ladder from the loft. He reached her in three long strides, plucked her off the ladder with one arm, and ran out.

As he rounded the corner of the cottage, he saw the mother running toward him holding a child with each hand. She must have realized she had missed one.

"I have her," Connor told her. "We must get your family hidden now!"

"This way," she said.

They were in plain view, and the MacLeod warriors would reach the top of the hill at any moment. Connor scooped up the child who was lagging behind and holding his mother back, and together they ran for the copse of trees behind the cottage.

Shouts and the sounds of the enemy warriors smashing the family's pots and meager furniture reached Connor's ears as they entered the trees and continued running. On the other side of the small wood, they caught up with Malcom and the other children, who were waiting for them on a well-trod path.

"I'm grateful to ye for helping with my family," the woman said, her voice breathless. "But you're in danger here, Chieftain. Ye must go while ye can."

"I'll wait until you and your bairns are safely hidden," he said. "We're too close to the cottage. They'll find ye here."

"We can hide down the hill," she said.

They had evidently hidden there before because the older children were already disappearing down the side of the hill. As Connor left the path to follow them, he glanced over his shoulder. He saw no one yet, but they would be coming.

The family hid in an eight-foot-wide depression in the side of the hill created when a large tree had been uprooted.

"Ye must keep the children quiet," Connor whispered to Malcom and his wife while he passed the two bairns he had carried down to them.

Connor lay flat in the grass next to their hiding place where he would be able to see anyone on the path above them. Sounds were still coming from the cottage, but he suspected the MacLeods would split into groups to search. At least, that is what he would order if he were in charge.

One of the children cried out and was quickly silenced.

"This way!" a voice called out. "I heard something!"

* * *

"Put that knife down before ye slice your thumb off," Cook said and took it from her. "Ye shouldn't be doing kitchen work at all, but you're a danger to yourself today."

"I'm sorry to get in your way," Ilysa said. "I'm just worried."

After pacing her room until she could stand it no more, she had come down to the kitchen hoping to distract herself.

"The chieftain has gone out with some of the men several nights now," Cook said as he chopped onions with blinding speed, "and nothing's gone wrong."

Ilysa had told herself that over and over. Yet she could not shake this feeling of impending disaster.

"The men will return soon," Cook said. "You'll see."

"Of course they will," Ilysa said and kissed his cheek. "I'll leave ye to your work."

As she was going up the circular stairs to her chamber, Ilysa suddenly felt cold pass through her as if someone were walking on her grave. She held her hand against the stone wall to steady herself while her sight grew blurry. Though she was aware of where she was, the stairwell disappeared, and she saw Connor bathed in moonlight. He was reaching his arm out to her, and his tunic was dripping with blood.

As soon as the vision passed, Ilysa raced up the stairs, knowing what she must do. She hurriedly collected the things she would need and put on her cloak.