The Chieftain (Chapter 40)

Connor was torn between fear and jealousy, not knowing if Lachlan had kidnapped Ilysa or if she had she gone willingly.

After he found the two men he had assigned to guard Ilysa sound asleep in the hall and hauled them outside to question them, he had grilled the guards at the gate. They all told him the same story. Lachlan and Ilysa were both held in such regard that they were allowed to walk out of the castle with nary a question, despite Connor's explicit command.

"I don't know where she is," Connor said for the hundredth time as he wore out the floor pacing. Alex had chosen to believe the obviously fabricated story about an ill child and was annoyingly unconcerned.

"Let's work on a problem we can solve." Alex stretched out his long legs and yawned. "I believe I can tell ye who your spy is."

"Do ye claim ye have The Sight now?" Connor asked.

"Ach, 'tis a simple matter once I have the right information," Alex said with an amused glint in his eye.

"I'm in no mood for games," Connor said.

"We're looking for a man, or a woman, who has a grudge against ye or something important to gain by helping Hugh," Alex continued, undeterred. "Our culprit also must be ruthless enough to murder two innocent men of his clan to serve his purpose."

Alex was right. There was always a reason people did what they did; it was just a matter of discovering what it was.

A knock on his door interrupted his contemplation of suspects. When Connor opened it, one of the men he had upbraided earlier for letting Lachlan and Ilysa leave was there.

"Thought you'd want to know that Lachlan's returned."

* * *

Lachlan was hauled up the stairs and into the chieftain's private chamber. While Connor clenched his fists and looked ready to murder him, a long, lean, warrior sat with his feet propped up on Connor's table. The visitor had the look of an ancient Viking except for the amusement in his sea-green eyes.

"What have you and Ilysa done? Betrayed us to the MacLeods or to Hugh?" Connor shouted at him, looking every inch the warrior chieftain. "How could you, a man who has been hailed as a hero of our clan, commit this egregious act? After I trusted ye enough to make ye my captain, this betrayal cuts deep."

Lachlan felt himself sinking fast in a sea of disaster. Somehow, Connor had discovered his crime. But why did he mention Ilysa, as if she had been an accomplice in the attempted assassination?

"Tell me what I'm accused of," Lachlan said, instinctively defending himself, though he was guilty as hell. "As for Ilysa, your imagination far exceeds mine if ye can conceive of her betraying the clan."

"I saw the two of ye talking alone time and again," Connor said, his eyes flashing. "And now, ye sneak her out of the castle against my orders. You've betrayed me."

Oh, Jesu, was that all? Being caught violating Connor's order to keep Ilysa in the castle was a slight offense compared with Lachlan's near-successful attempt to murder the MacDonald chieftain.

"My sister's child was ill," Lachlan said. "She would not have lasted the night without Ilysa's care."

"An easy claim to make," Connor said, folding his arms. "Why should I believe ye?"

"I think we can rule him out as Hugh's spy," the warrior lounging in the chair put in. "Evidently, he has no need to stab your guards to get them to leave their posts or open the gate for him."

O shluagh, Connor suspected him of that? "Ye can ask my sister – ye know both her and the child," Lachlan said. "Ye were at her and Malcom's home the night the MacLeod warriors attacked. My sister told me ye saved wee Brigid."

"That's your sister's family?" Connor asked. "Is the child all right?"

"Aye, thanks to Ilysa's healing skills," Lachlan said.

"Ye brought Ilysa back with ye?" Connor asked and started heading for the door.

"No," Lachlan said, bringing Connor to an abrupt halt. "She didn't want ye to know where she is, and she claims she's never coming back."

"What else did she say?" Connor asked.

Lachlan hesitated. "She may have mentioned something about marrying another chieftain…"

Connor made a growling sound and started pacing the room.

"See, Ilysa's safe, and ye can sort this out later," the tall blond warrior said and stretched his arms as if he hadn't a care in the world. "'Tis time for fighting, aye?"

Lachlan was more than ready to change the subject. "Malcom crossed the inlet to the other peninsula and saw scores of MacLeod warriors moving south, toward the river," he told Connor. "Ye were right – if they were attacking the castle, they'd come by sea."

At the sound of shouts from the courtyard, he and Connor rushed to the windows. Even the visiting warrior was stirred to drop his feet from the table and join them.

"A fleet of war galleys is coming!" one of the men shouted up to Connor. "Our men from Sleat are here!"

Connor strode out of the room. When Lachlan started to follow him, the other warrior stopped him with a steel grip on his arm.

"I'm the chieftain's cousin Alex," he said. "Is Ilysa all right?"

"Aye," Lachlan said.

"Good," Alex said with a smile that did not reach his cold, green eyes. "Because I'll skin ye alive if you've harmed her."

* * *

With a mix of relief and anguish, Connor watched the MacIain galleys – all six of them – sail toward the bay behind Ian and Duncan's boats. MacIain had arrived in time for the battle and met Connor's condition for the marriage alliance.

"Shame I asked my father-in-law to use his warriors to guard North Uist for me so I could bring more of our own men to this fight," Alex said as they waited on the shore for the galleys to come in. "If I'd known Ilysa wanted to marry him, I would have brought him along instead."

Connor ignored the taunt. He understood why Alex was angry – hell, he was angry with himself.

"Hope you're ready to fight," he greeted Duncan and Ian after their galleys were pulled onto the shore.

"How is my sister?" Duncan asked.

"She's away from the castle caring for a sick child," Connor said. This was not the time to tell Duncan that his sister did not intend to return to the castle – and it would never be a good time to tell him why. Duncan, I took your sister to bed, then condemned her for a traitor and attempted to hold her prisoner. She's a wee bit upset with me. If Alex was right and Ilysa was innocent, he had committed another great wrong against her.

"Have ye found Ilysa a husband yet?" Alex asked.

"Not yet," Connor said keeping his voice even. He wanted to strangle Alex for goading him in front of Duncan.

"Ach, you're slacking in your duty to her," Alex said. "But I suppose ye have been busy."

Ian raised an eyebrow and shot a look between him and Alex – and just like that, Connor could tell that Ian had guessed that something had happened between him and Ilysa. It was one thing to know each other so well that they could read each other's minds on the battlefield; this was quite another. Praise God Duncan had a blind spot when it came to his sister.

"Ach, no, why did MacIain bring a Campbell with him?" Connor asked when he caught sight of the boar-head crest of the Campbell clan on the sail of one of the galleys. Damn it. He had hoped to have the battle with the MacLeods concluded before the Crown's lieutenant learned of it.

"That's John Campbell in that galley," Ian said, referring to the Campbell chieftain's brother, who was also the Thane of Cawdor. "The other galleys are his as well."

"MacIain is no coming?" Connor asked.

"No," Ian said. "He's dead."