The Chieftain (Chapter 14)

Connor tensed when one of the guards burst into the hall and made a straight line for him. It was usually bad news that couldn't wait.

"There's a man at the gate claiming to be a relative of yours – and he looks as if he could be," the guard said. "He came in a fine galley with a dozen warriors."

This was good news after all. A week ago, Connor had sent Sorely with a message to Torquil MacLeod of Lewis. He had not expected his half brother to accept his invitation and offer of friendship, but he was very pleased that he had.

"Bring him in at once." Connor stood, too anxious to remain in his seat.

When the doors swung open and the guest led his warriors in, Connor covered his disappointment. This was not the relative he was hoping to see. Though Connor could not recall meeting this middle-aged man dressed in fine clothes, his guest looked unnervingly familiar.

"I am Connor, son of Donald Gallach, and chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat," Connor said when his guest stood before him in the center of the hall. "Welcome to Trotternish Castle."

"I hope I am welcome," the man said. "I haven't seen ye since ye were a young lad. I am your father's brother, Archibald Lerrich."

Connor had guessed as much. He had the same square face, fading golden hair, and barrel-chested frame as Connor's father and his hated uncle Hugh. Of the six sons his grandfather had by six different highborn women, Archibald and Hugh were the only survivors. Archibald was one of the middle brothers, in his midforties, with a reputation for staying out of trouble's way. The last Connor heard, Archibald had left Skye to live with his wife's clan in Lachalsh.

"I've come to swear my allegiance," Archibald said and sank to one knee. When Connor nodded, his uncle held his claymore out in both hands and gave his oath.

"Ye took your time," Connor said, not bothering to hide the coldness from his voice as his uncle rose to his feet again.

"I didn't join Hugh against ye," Archibald said, spreading his arms, "but neither did I wish to get between the two of ye."

Connor let that pass for the moment. He wanted to find out the true reason for Archibald's visit.

"Let us go where we can speak in private, Uncle," Connor said. Without waiting for Archibald's reply, he led the way into the adjacent building.

"You've grown into a fine man," Archibald said, when they had settled at the table in Connor's chamber. "I can see your mother in ye."

Connor saw far too much of his father and his other uncles in Archibald.

"I've been chieftain for some time," Connor said. "Why have ye come now?"

"Ye may look like your mother, but you're direct like your father."

Archibald attempted a smile, but Connor did not respond in kind. He waited for his uncle to stop fidgeting and say what he had come to say.

"I am here in the hope," Archibald finally said, "of bringing peace between you and Hugh."

"Hmmph, 'tis late for that," Connor said. "I hold him responsible for the deaths of my father, my brother, and a great many other clansmen."

"Well," Archibald said, tilting his head, "Hugh blames you for the deaths of two of our brothers."

"There's a difference between justice and murder." Connor leaned across the table and grabbed Archibald by the front of his tunic. "Those two were marauding pirates guilty of taking food from the mouths of children and then raping their mothers, so do not speak to me as if their deaths are the same."

Connor released him and sat back, annoyed with himself for losing control.

"I understand your feelings about it," Archibald said after clearing his throat, "but there's been enough bloodshed among our family."

"I doubt Hugh would agree, judging by how many times he's tried to have me murdered," Connor said. "He won't be satisfied until one of us is dead."

"Hugh is mean as a cornered rat, but he's no fool – he can see that he's losing this fight with ye," Archibald said. "He sent a message through a lass named Rhona, asking me to serve as an intermediary."

So Duncan's former lover was still with Hugh. The mention of her name soured Connor's mood further.

"Now that Hugh has earned the Crown's favor by capturing a couple of other pirate leaders, he'd like to give up the game himself," Archibald said.

"As they say, there's no honor among thieves."

"Hugh wants – "

Archibald stopped speaking when the door opened and Ilysa came in with a tray. Connor was grateful she had brought it herself since her loyalty was beyond question. By the saints, he was tired of looking over his shoulder, wondering which member of his household was involved in treachery with Hugh.

As Ilysa poured the whiskey into two cups, Connor motioned to Archibald to continue talking.

"Hugh wants to settle his differences with ye." Archibald leaned forward. "I suspect ye could buy him off with a wee bit of land."

Connor kept his expression blank while rage rolled through him. Give that murdering bastard some of the clan's land?

"Surely it's worth at least meeting with Hugh and hearing what he has to say?" Archibald said.

The only way Connor wanted to meet Hugh Dubh again was with the point of his sword sunk in Hugh's belly. He forced himself to tamp down his temper and think it through coldly. This violent contest with Hugh was a distraction from the most important challenge, the battle with the MacLeods for Trotternish. The clan did not have the strength to fight both at the same time.

He did not believe for a moment that Hugh was ready to give up his quest for the chieftainship. Eventually, Connor would have to settle the problem of Hugh once and for all. Yet, if he could delay that final reckoning with his uncle until after the fight with the MacLeods, he would stand a far better chance of succeeding at both.

"Hugh asked me to host the meeting at my home," Archibald said. "You'll both be my guests, and as such, you'll be protected by the ancient code of hospitality."

"I'll consider it," Connor said, though he had already decided to go.

"If ye wish to meet Hugh," Archibald said, "be at my home in exactly five days."

* * *

Ilysa's heart raced when she heard Archibald suggest Connor meet with Hugh. Unfortunately, she could not tell if it was fear or a true premonition. She needed to attempt to bring on The Sight. This time, she could not use Connor's chamber to help connect the vision to him, so she stole a loose hair from each of the men's tunics to mix with her herbs.

After ramming the bar across her door, she put an extra peat log on her brazier, then cut the hair into the herbs with her dirk. Her hand shook as she spread the mixture over the brazier.

Only rarely had she been able to see the future. On those times she did, what she saw was more a riddle than a clear vision. But now, when she breathed in the pungent fumes, a vision came to her so quickly and with such clarity that she gasped.

She saw Connor sitting at a table laden with food. On either side of him were two fair-haired, square-faced men – his uncles, Archibald and Hugh Dubh. As she watched, Hugh got up from the table and waved his arm, urging the other two to follow. Archibald went at once to join him at the window, but Connor held back.

Don't go. Ilysa did not understand why, but she knew Connor must not go to the window. Leave the room. Leave the house. Now! She tried to tell him, but he could not hear her.

"Come take a look at my new galley," Hugh said, his voice coming to Ilysa as if through a tunnel. "Isn't she a beauty?"

Tears stung Ilysa's eyes as Connor joined his uncles. She felt Connor's aversion when Hugh put a heavy arm around his shoulders and pointed out the window.

In a move so swift Ilysa barely saw it, Hugh drove a blade into Connor's back. Ilysa screamed soundlessly as Connor fell to the floor. Grief engulfed her. Connor lay unnaturally still, his blood seeping out of him. Archibald's face was horror-struck as he looked down at Connor. Clearly, he had not been party to this travesty, and he failed to grasp the danger to himself in time. In the next moment Hugh plunged his blade into his brother.

Ilysa had no idea how much time had passed when she found herself lying on her floor, covered in a cold sweat. After pulling herself up, she stumbled to the narrow table against the wall and poured water from the pitcher into the bowl. Her hands shook so badly that most of the water ran through her fingers as she splashed it on her face and neck. Holding the drying cloth to her face, she rocked back and forth.

She had to prevent this from happening. At all costs, she must stop Connor from going to the meeting with his uncles – or Hugh would murder him.

* * *

Connor stood by the window re-reading the royal summons commanding him to attend the upcoming gathering. He had avoided answering similar summons in the past. When the Crown was nervous, it had a nasty habit of imprisoning Highland chieftains on suspicion of treason or holding them hostage as a preventive measure. Now that the current rebellion was dying down, the Crown was calmer, and failing to obey the summons presented the greater risk.

The gathering was at Mingary Castle, the stronghold of the MacIains, who were steadfast supporters of the Crown in a region where few could make that claim. The gathering and the MacIains naturally led Connor to thoughts about treachery and marriage.

Not long after the Lord of the Isles was forced to submit to the Scottish Crown, the MacIain chieftain turned on his former allies, the MacDonalds of Dunivaig and the Glens. Through treachery, he captured the chieftain, his son, and his two oldest grandsons, who were all executed.

A younger grandson survived because he was in Ireland at the time. That was Alexander, Deirdre and James's father. After the executions, the Crown forced a peace through Alexander's marriage to MacIain's daughter.

At the gathering, Connor must choose which treacherous clan to ally himself with through marriage. But first, he had to spar with his vile uncle Hugh. Please God, just put a sword in my hand. Fighting was so much easier.

"May I speak?"

Connor started at the soft voice behind him and turned from the window to find Ilysa.

"I didn't see ye come in," he said. "What is it? Are our stores low, and I need to send the men out hunting? Or is it something far worse? Please tell me the whiskey isn't gone."

He was teasing her, glad for the diversion from his troubles. Ilysa, however, did not favor him with a smile. He narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at her. The usually unshakable Ilysa was twisting her hands in the skirt of her gown.

"What's wrong?"

"Ye mustn't go to your uncle's," she said.

"What did ye say?" Connor thought he must have misheard her.

"Don't go," she said, blinking her big brown eyes at him. "You'll be in grave danger if ye do."

Connor was aware that Ilysa had stayed in the room to listen when he met with his uncle, as she often did. He had never minded before because he trusted her loyalty absolutely and she never gave away secrets. But, by the saints, now she was trying to tell him what to do.

"I appreciate your concern," Connor said. "Now I have important matters to attend to."

He turned back to the window. After a moment, he realized she was still standing there. Did the lass not understand he had dismissed her?

"Leave me now," he said over his shoulder.

"Ye were angry with me for how ye learned about Deirdre," she said.

Connor's temper flared at the memory. When he turned and fixed his gaze on Ilysa, he did not attempt to hide it.

"Ye said I should have simply told ye what I knew," Ilysa said, her face pinched in an earnest expression.

"I did," Connor said, though he did not see why she was bringing this up.

"So that's what I'm doing now." Ilysa paused to lick her lips. "I'm telling ye that ye must not go to your uncle's."

Connor closed his eyes and rubbed the space between his brows where a raging headache was starting. He reminded himself that Ilysa was Duncan's sister, and therefore he should not yell at her. All the same, she needed to understand her place. He took a deep breath.

"I give ye a free hand with the kitchens and the servants," he said, biting out the words. "But I am your chieftain, and ye will not attempt to tell me what to do."

"Ye don't understand," she said, her voice rising. "I had a vision."

God help him, Tearlag taught her how to mix a few salves and now Ilysa believed she had The Sight.

"I don't have time for such foolishness." Connor set the summons on his table and took her arm.

"Hugh wants to murder ye," Ilysa said as he led her to the door.

"There's nothing new about that. He's wanted to kill me for years." Connor opened the door and put a hand at her back. "Don't ever question my judgment again. Now go."

* * *

Connor felt guilty when he saw Ilysa across the courtyard. Ever since he had spoken harshly to her after his uncle's visit two days ago, she dropped her gaze whenever she passed him. She was a sweet, delicate lass. While he could not tolerate her interference, he had not meant to hurt her feelings.

She had barely spoken a word to him since. Odd, how much that unsettled him. He liked and respected Ilysa, and it did not feel right having this discord between them. When their paths crossed in the middle of the courtyard and she stopped to speak with him, he was relieved.

"Your favorite dog has had pups," she said, her face bright. "I can show them to ye when ye have a moment."

Connor had a great many things to do before he left, but this should not take long. Besides, he wanted to make things right between them.

"I can see them now," he said. "Where is Maggie?"

"She's hidden her pups well," Ilysa said, with a small smile. "Come inside, and I'll show ye."

Connor followed her down into the undercroft and past the kitchens, which were oddly quiet. When she opened the door to a storeroom, he followed her inside. He tamped down the impatience tugging at him when he looked about and did not see his dog amid the sacks of oats and barley.

Ilysa surprised him by dropping to her knees and lifting a board from the floor. Beneath it was a dark hole. Puzzled, Connor stooped beside her. On closer inspection, he saw that there was a ladder in the hole.

"What is this?" he asked.

"Cook told me it leads down into a secret part of the dungeon, built for special prisoners."

"Special?" Connor grunted. "Why has no one told me about it?"

"Cook's grandfather showed it to him when he was a young lad. I don't think anyone else knows about it except perhaps a couple of the old folk." Ilysa smiled and added, "And your dog."

"How did Maggie get down there?" he asked, trying to see down into the hole.

"I couldn't find it, but there must be another entrance." Ilysa turned around to back down the ladder and put her foot on the first rung.

"No need for you to go," Connor said.

"I must show ye where she's hiding," Ilysa said. "You can carry the torch."

"All right, but I'll go first."

The smell of damp earth filled Connor's nose as he climbed down through the narrow tunnel. When he reached the bottom rung of the ladder, he dropped to the floor, then lifted Ilysa down. Such a slender waist she had. He looked around and saw that they were in a stone-walled passageway. Many castles had secret tunnels like this.

"Maggie and her pups are in there," Ilysa said, pointing into the darkness.

Connor followed the tunnel around a corner and through an open iron grate door into what was surely a cell. He lifted the torch to see into the corners, looking for his damned dog. Something was odd, but he could not quite put his finger on it. Ach, there were no rats scurrying before him, and no spiderwebs. That was it.

When the door slammed behind him, he thought it had been blown shut. But there is no wind. He turned around, wondering what happened.

"Ilysa?" He raised his torch higher. Where had she gone?

He pulled on the door, but it was stuck. He jerked at it. Then he glanced about the cell. There were no pups here.

"Ilysa!" he shouted and pounded his fist on the door.

Relief flooded through him when he saw Ilysa's head poke out from around the corner. She must have been waiting for him back by the ladder.

"The door's stuck," he said. "Ye may have to fetch some of the men to get me out."

"I'm sorry," she said, stepping out from behind the wall. "If you'd listened to me, I wouldn't have to do this."

"What in the hell are ye talking about?" he shouted. "Open this damned door at once!"

"I can't do that."

Connor's stomach dropped. She could not be betraying him. Not Ilysa.

"I told ye I had a vision," she said. "You were with your two uncles, and Hugh stabbed ye in the back. He murdered ye."

Instead of betraying him, had she gone mad? She stood outside of the circle of light from his torch so he could not see her face clearly, but she sounded as though she was weeping.

"Open the door," he said, trying to keep his voice calm. "Ye do have the key?"

"Can't ye see that I couldn't let ye meet your uncles?" she said. "I must protect ye."

"You, protect me?" he said, anger surging through his veins. "I am your chieftain, and I command ye to release me."

"Hugh was going to murder ye if ye went," she said. "I saw it."

"Ilysa!" he shouted.

"It won't be for that long," she said, brushing her skirts as if she were discussing a problem with the laundry. "Three days should be long enough for ye to miss the meeting, aye?"

She could not mean it.

"Ye have everything ye need down here. Plenty of candles and parchment," she said. "I'll bring ye food and fresh water every day."

By the saints, she had planned this all out. "You even cleaned it, didn't ye?"

He wanted to strangle her.

"If ye look under that cloth on the table, you'll find one of those apple tarts you're so fond of."

"An apple tart?" he said, clenching his fists. "Christ, Ilysa, ye think an apple tart will appease me!"

"No need for blasphemy and shouting," she said.

"I'm going to commit a far worse sin than blasphemy when I get out of here," he shouted. "I'm going to murder ye! Now release me at once!"