The Chieftain (Chapter 15)

Ilysa listened to the men's snores as she crept through the darkened hall on silent feet. Guiding herself with one hand on the wall, she descended the stairs into the undercroft. After she was in the storage room and closed the door, she lit the lamp she had left there.

I locked my chieftain in a cell. The magnitude of the act struck her as she lifted the board from the floor.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself for another round of angry shouting. Once Connor realized she was not going to relent and let him out no matter what he threatened, they were usually able to have a reasonable conversation. Ilysa meticulously reported all the goings-on in the castle so he would not be caught unaware of anything important when he returned.

But this time, there would be no conversation after the shouting. She was releasing him.

After three days of hearing him make violent threats against her person, Ilysa was a trifle uneasy. She did not believe Connor would actually murder her with his bare hands, as he had said so many times. Yet she did anticipate she would receive some sort of punishment.

Was Connor angry enough to have her whipped in the courtyard in front of everyone? No, she felt certain it would be a private punishment.

Anxiety balled in her stomach as she climbed down the ladder. Connor was silent as she approached the door, which made her more nervous.

"I told everyone that ye left the castle after dark that first night for a secret meeting," she said as she drew the iron key from the pouch tied to her belt. "'Tis the middle of the night now. No one will ever know ye were here the whole time."

Her hand shook too badly for her to fit the key into the keyhole.

"Aaah!" she yelped when a hand reached through the grate and grabbed hold of hers. Connor did not say a word, and his hand was rock-steady as he twisted hers to turn the key in the lock. Ilysa jumped back as he shoved the door open with such force that it banged against the wall.

"I am sorely tempted to toss ye in that cell in my place and throw away the key," Connor said with such venom that a shiver went up her back.

Instead, he lifted her off her feet, carried her to the ladder, and flung her onto it. It did not matter that her legs were too wobbly to go up by themselves, because Connor was pushing her up from behind with a hand on her bottom. He was, understandably, anxious to be out of his prison.

A moment later, they were facing each other in the storage room, which seemed far too tiny to contain Connor and his fury. In the light of the lamp she had left burning, she could see him clearly. His fists were clenched, and his chest heaving. With three days of beard and that black rage in his eyes, he looked so dark and dangerous that she could barely breathe. Yet he had never looked more handsome.

"I want ye to leave," Connor said. "Now."

"Leave?" Ilysa had not expected this. "Can't ye just order me whipped instead?"

"I don't have women whipped, for God's sake!" Connor said, his eyes narrow angry slits. "Besides, such a punishment would require an explanation, and no one is ever going to learn about this."

Ilysa could see that her worst offense had been hurting his pride.

"But ye need me here to take care of your household," she said, desperation taking hold. "I promise no one will know that I locked ye up."

"I will know," Connor said between his teeth. "You're leaving, and I don't want to see you in this castle ever again."

He turned on his heel and left, his anger like shimmering heat in his wake.

* * *

Connor sat in his chieftain's chair at the high table waiting for his breakfast. He ignored the questioning glances from his men. He owed them no explanation for where he had been for the last three days, and he was giving none.

Three days in his own dungeon, held prisoner by a wee lass. Even Shaggy Maclean had only succeeded in holding him prisoner a single day. Connor's fury was boundless.

Ilysa had the effrontery to tell him she was protecting him. Protecting him. And worse, she believed it! That was as offensive as deciding she had the right to dispute his judgment and ignore his commands. After pacing the floor the remainder of the night – he was too furious to sleep – he had decided to relent and not ship her home to Dunscaith. He was too kindhearted. Still, she did need to be punished.

Where in the hell was his breakfast? He was starving, which worsened his already black mood. The servants were scurrying about like confused chickens, but no one was bringing him food.

Was this Ilysa's way of punishing him for shouting at her last night? Three days ago, he would have dismissed the notion, believing her incapable of spite. But after living in the same household for much of their lives, he'd discovered that he did not know her at all.

Anger pulsed through him, making his pounding headache worse.

He slammed his cup on the table. "Where is my breakfast?"

Everyone in the hall was giving him nervous, sideways looks. He never abused his authority by shouting over small matters like a spoiled prince. This too, he blamed on Ilysa. By God, she deserved a dire punishment. If only he could think of one. He could not give her additional work, for no one worked harder.

Finally, the serving women scurried in with what looked like last night's supper. Cold.

"Where's my porridge?" he asked one of them.

"I'm sorry, Chieftain," the lass said, her eyes wide as if she expected him to take a bite out of her. "We forgot to make it."

Forgot? He had porridge with his breakfast every single morning. Even in his goddamned dungeon, Ilysa had brought it to him.

"Just see that it doesn't happen again," he said, softening his voice with an effort because he did not want to send the lass into a dead faint.

Ilysa had let everything fall apart in the kitchen. Clearly, it did not pay to upset her.

After his miserable, cold breakfast, Connor went outside for some blessed fresh air. Nothing like spending time in a dank dungeon to make a man appreciate daylight. He walked along the side of the keep, drawing in deep breaths. As he was about to round the corner, he heard someone speak his name and paused.

"Where do ye suppose the chieftain was?" a woman asked.

He should have known the entire castle would be speculating about his absence.

"Ilysa's face went all pink when she told us he'd gone to 'a secret meeting,' and he didn't take his guard with him," a male voice responded. "I'd say that means he was visiting a lass."

"About time!" another man said, and this was followed by a round of bawdy laughter. "We'll have to stop calling him Saint Connor."

"Who's the lucky lass?" the woman asked.

The names of several women were raised and dismissed in turn.

"He wouldn't have to ask me twice," the woman said, which caused loud guffaws.

Connor rubbed his temples as he recognized the woman's voice as belonging to Fl��raidh, a grandmother as round as a turnip.

"He's keeping it quiet," the second man said, "so I'd wager our Saint Connor is fooking another man's wife!"

It was time to put a stop to this. When Connor stepped around the corner, the three stared at him openmouthed.

"Since ye have time on your hands, you two will take night guard duty for a week," he said, pointing at the two warriors. Then he turned his glare on Fl��raidh. "I'd better have hot porridge on my table tomorrow."

Connor spent the rest of the morning supervising the men's practice. Knocking his opponents to the ground for a few hours improved his mood considerably. He felt almost himself again by the time they went in for the midday meal.

The disaster of breakfast was repeated. Cold, tasteless food from the day before was served, and that was soon gone. He had enough troubles without facing them hungry.

Connor was tempted to give Ilysa the punishment she deserved after all: three days and nights in the hole of a dungeon. And no hot food, either. He took a long swallow of his drink and slammed his cup on the table. Even the ale had gone sour.

"Send Ilysa to my chamber," he ordered Lachlan, who happened to be standing by the door as he left the hall.

Connor paced his chamber, waiting. What in the hell was taking so long? Finally, there was a rap at his door. He turned, prepared to give Ilysa the berating of her life, but it was Lachlan.

"I couldn't find her," Lachlan said.

"Then look harder."

"Ilysa is not here."

"I suppose someone in one of the nearby cottages needed a healer." Connor hoped she had the sense not to go alone. "The moment she returns, I want to see her."

"Ilysa has gone from Trotternish," Lachlan said. "She sailed before dawn for Dunscaith Castle."

"No, that can't be." Connor stopped his pacing. "Ilysa couldn't sail a boat to Dunscaith by herself."

"Niall took her in that small galley," Lachlan said.

Two could sail the galley they had stolen from Shaggy Maclean. "How do ye know this?" Connor demanded.

"Cook was the only one Ilysa told, and it wasn't easy getting it from him," Lachlan said, looking uncomfortable.

"What do ye mean, it wasn't easy?" Connor said, narrowing his eyes at Lachlan. He did not approve of his warriors being rough with the servants.

"Ach, the man is a blubbering mess, weeping like a babe," Lachlan said, making a face. "I told him that's no way for a MacDonald to behave, but it did no good. I expect supper will be no better than breakfast and dinner were."

Connor went to the window to look out at the sea. Niall was a fine sailor, but they would be passing lands held by the MacLeods, which was dangerous with just the two of them.

Why did they go? Connor did not realize he had spoken the question aloud until Lachlan answered it.

"Ilysa told Cook that ye ordered her to leave."