The Chieftain (Chapter 35)

Ilysa?" Connor felt the blood drain from his head. "What about Ilysa?"

"I saw her sneak out of the castle a short time ago," Sorely said.

"She's a healer," Connor said. "I'm sure she's helping one of the farmer's wives deliver a babe or some such."

"When she does that, someone always comes asking for her first," Sorely said. "No one came. She stole out like a thief in the night."

Connor knew Ilysa was no spy for Hugh. The suggestion was ridiculous. But where was she going in the middle of the night if no one had come seeking a healer?

Can Ilysa be meeting a man? The thought struck him like a blade to his heart. No, she would not do that, not so soon after they had been together.

He hated himself for thinking it. But now that the idea took hold, he could not shake it. A lass like Ilysa needed a lover. After Connor had uncovered her passionate nature buried beneath her layers of calm control, he hated the idea of her sharing it with another man.

"You're certain it was her?" he asked.

"Aye," Sorely said, looking mournful. "I've seen her go before."

Had she found another man while they were still lovers? Could that be the reason she was able to turn her back on him so utterly?

"Ye gave a clear command that no one was to leave without your permission," Sorely said, lifting one shoulder.

"I'm sure there's an innocent reason." He hoped to God there was. "She probably woke up worrying about some child she saw days ago with a fever."

Ilysa would not want to hurt his pride. If she were meeting a man for a liaison, she would not do it here in the castle where he was certain to find out. She was nothing if not considerate.

"Perhaps we should follow her?" Sorely suggested. "That would answer it."

Sorely was a fool to suspect Ilysa was their traitor. If she was meeting a man tonight, Connor did not want anyone to discover it but him.

"No, this is a trivial matter. I'll send a couple of the young men who need to practice their tracking skills," Connor said. "You and Lachlan will be leaving early, so get your rest."

"I came as soon as I saw her leave," Sorely said, "but whoever you're sending will need to be quick to catch her before she's crossed the field and is out of sight."

* * *

Ilysa's breathing was loud in her ears as she ran, then walked, then ran again along the dark path. It was a long distance to the faery hills, and she had to hurry to make it there and back before dawn. As she hastened her steps, she was grateful for the moonlight that shone intermittently between the windblown night clouds and kept her from losing her way.

After a couple of hours, the outline of the odd, conical hills emerged against the blacker night. White dots of sheep lay scattered across them, like stars in the sky. Ilysa set down her bag and caught her breath as she unpacked her things. Before starting the fire, she changed into her robe. Though no one was here to see her, she felt too exposed to remove her clothes in the firelight.

Once she had the blaze going, she found a stick the right length. She needed to calm herself and focus her thoughts for the spell to work. She stood facing the fire and drew in deep breaths until her heartbeat slowed.

Gradually, she pushed back the fear that had dogged her steps while traveling alone at night, as well as the tiredness from running and lack of sleep. Finally, and hardest of all, she set aside the hurt, the anger, and the desolation that had engulfed her since the arrival of Connor's bride.

She released all the emotions that crowded her heart and thoughts. All she kept of them was the longing, for that helped her to focus not on herself, but on the man. On Connor, for whom she was casting her spell.

She tossed a handful of the herbs she had brought onto the fire, and a burst of sparks shot above her head. The fire glowed in hues of blue, green, and orange. As she stared into the flames, she conjured an image of Connor, and she felt his presence so strongly that she was hopeful her spell would succeed.

Slowly, she began to circle the fire, left to right, in the direction for good fortune. As she walked, she dragged her stick behind her. It made no mark on the grass-covered ground, but the strength of the circle of protection she was making around Connor had nothing to do with what the eyes could see.

"Connor, son of Donald Gallach, grandson of Hugh, and great-grandson of the Lord of the Isles," she chanted as she circled, keeping his image in her mind, "may you be the chieftain who brings security and peace to our clan.

"May your feats be so great that the bards write poems and sing songs about them for many generations," she chanted as she circled a second time.

"May ye live to be an old man," she said, and in her mind's eye, she aged his beloved face, giving him deep lines and snowy white hair. "May your children be bonded to each other by great affection, and may ye have grandchildren who bring ye joy."

When she had circled three times, she flung her head back and raised her arms to the night sky. "May this circle protect and keep you until all these things have come to pass."

Now that she had completed the simple protective charm of the circle, she was ready to begin the more powerful fire dance. With every movement of the dance, she must please the faeries and thereby win their favor. In exchange, they would employ their magic for Connor's protection. Highlanders were good Christians, of course, and so the chant also called on God's help.

Blades may cut you,

Yet none shall kill you.

False friends may deceive you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Allies may desert you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Enemies may trap you,

Yet none shall kill you.

Seun Dhe umad!

Lamh Dhe airson do dh��ona!

Spell of God about you!

The hand of God protect you!

* * *

Connor knelt on one knee in the grass, mesmerized. So he had not imagined the dancing faery the night he stumbled into the faery glen injured and bleeding. Somehow, it made sense that his dancing faery was Ilysa. As her hair caught the light of the fire and her body swayed back and forth, he thought of her above him and the magic of their lovemaking.

When he left the castle, he had been lucky to spot her at the far edge of the field in the moonlight. He had kept close enough to protect her should trouble find her, yet far enough behind her that she would not sense him following. The distance she traveled had surprised him. The longer she walked, the lower Connor's opinion sank of the man who had asked her to come so far alone to meet him. But when he recognized the odd, conical hills of the faery glen, he realized he had been wrong.

Instead of a romantic liaison, she had come all this way to reach the faery glen and recite some sort of spell. Connor set less store by the power of the Old Ways than most Highlanders – and clearly less than Ilysa did. With too little thought, he had dismissed the rumors that she was learning more from Tearlag than headache cures.

He could not make out the words of her chant, for he kept his distance, not wanting to interrupt her until she finished her enchantment. Or curse. When he was injured and thought she was a faery, he had not seen her circle the fire with a stick as she was doing now. But he had fallen asleep that night and could easily have missed it.

As she circled the fire, long-ago memories of his mother cursing his father flashed through his head. What Ilysa was doing looked the same, and yet was markedly different. His memory of his mother was black as night, from the hate in her eyes, to her harsh words, to her hair writhing like snakes, while everything about Ilysa radiated light – her hair, her face, her robe.

When Ilysa began to dance around the fire, Connor forgot to breathe. Her movements were so erotic that desire swept through him like a storm. He imagined making love to her in the firelight and watching her dance above him with her golden hair falling all around him.

* * *

Ilysa dropped her arms and closed her eyes, drained by her effort. When she recalled the image of an aged Connor, she smiled to herself. Ach, he would be a handsome old warrior. Her smile faded as she remembered that she would not be there to see him grow old.

When she opened her eyes, a jolt of fear coursed through her. Across the fire, she saw the outline of a huge warrior coming toward her out of the darkness. Her heart raced. In this magical place, he could be the faery king or a warrior from the dead. She quickly made the sign of the cross.

"Ilysa." The phantom said her name in a voice so deep she could feel it in her toes. "I was hoping to find ye here."

Her mind had been so focused first on Connor and then on her fear that it was a long moment before she took in his disfigured shoulder and realized who he was.

What was Alastair Crotach, chieftain of the MacLeods, doing here in the Faery Glen?

And why was he looking for her?