The Chieftain
Chapter 26

 Margaret Mallory

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Connor was standing by the hearth after breakfast when the doors to the hall swung open. Silence fell over the room as a gray-haired man in shabby clothing entered carrying a young woman in his arms. As Connor watched her long hair and limp limbs sway with the man's steps, the memory of his mother being carried up the beach at Dunscaith slammed into his chest.
He knew at once that the lass was dead.
The people who had been milling about a moment before moved aside to let the gray-haired man pass as he crossed the room with his burden to stand before Connor. Rage rolled through Connor as he took in the cuts and bruises on the dead lass's face and arms and the ugly finger marks around her neck. She was young, sixteen at most.
"My daughter," the man said in a ragged voice. "She was to be wed in a week."
Warriors died in battle. Connor felt sorrow for every man he lost, but it was an honorable death in the service of the clan, and he accepted it. He could not, however, accept this travesty as part of warfare, though it often was. The violation and murder of an innocent, young lass was unforgivable and merited the strongest possible retribution. He wanted to take his claymore and kill every last MacLeod warrior himself.
"My wife lives, but they raped her as well," the man said, his eyes deep wells of sorrow. "They tied me and made me watch what they did."
Connor's ears rang with the white-hot fury pulsing through him.
"I promise you," he said, clenching his fists. "The MacLeods will pay for this."
The silence in the room echoed like an accusation in Connor's head. Protecting his clan was his duty, and he had failed this man and his family. All he could give them now was revenge. But he would give them that.
"The devils who did this to her," the man said, fighting for control as he looked at his daughter draped in his arms, "were not MacLeods."
"Not MacLeods?" Connor said, stunned. What other clan would have committed this egregious offense against his people. "Who then?"
"They were Hugh Dubh's men."
* * *
Lachlan watched Connor as the old man told him how Hugh's men had gone on a rampage along the east coast of Trotternish, raiding and killing MacDonald farmers who, up until now, had withstood the pressure from the MacLeods to abandon their homes and fields. Connor's face was an expressionless mask, but his rage showed in his clenched jaw and the fire in his eyes.
"Do ye know where Hugh Dubh's men are now?" Connor asked the dead lass's father in a surprisingly gentle voice. "They must have a camp somewhere."
Lachlan was disappointed when the father shook his head. That meant he would have to tell Connor about Hugh's camp himself, which could raise questions he did not wish to answer.
Ilysa appeared at the father's side like the angel she was. With quiet murmurs, she persuaded him to lay his daughter's body on one of the long tables that were still set up from breakfast.
"Warriors, be ready," Connor's voice boomed out in the hall. "We leave within the hour to track down Hugh and his men."
Lachlan followed Connor into the adjoining building and caught up with him on the stairs to his chamber.
"Can I have a word?" Lachlan asked, grabbing his arm.
When Connor turned around, he had battle rage in his eyes. If Hugh could see him now, he would think twice about challenging him. Connor did not answer, but neither did he object when Lachlan followed him into his chamber and closed the door.
"This is a trick meant to trap you," Lachlan said. "Can't ye see it? Hugh's men made certain this poor father knew who they were, and then they let him go. They did that for a purpose."
Connor was glaring at him, but he was listening.
"Hugh can't touch ye while you're inside the castle. He's done this to lure ye out into the open, to a place of his choosing," Lachlan said. "Hugh knows this will make ye come, and he'll be lying in wait for ye."
"Hugh will continue killing and raping until I stop him," Connor said, as he shoved a dirk into the side of his boot. "I cannot sit in this castle while he does this to our people."
A surge of anger swelled in Lachlan's chest at Hugh. How could he have let himself be used by that filth of a man, who attacked his own people?
"Leave Hugh for another day and fight the MacLeods," Lachlan said, though he wanted to punish Hugh as much as Connor did. "More of them are crossing the Snizort River each day."
"We don't have the forces to fight the MacLeods yet. We must hold off that battle until Beltane, when my cousins and Duncan arrive with the rest of our warriors." Connor paused, his face grim. "Pray we have a new ally to come to our aid as well, because we'll need one."
"I don't suppose you're willing to wait for the others to arrive before going after Hugh," Lachlan said, though he knew that after seeing the old man and his dead daughter Connor would not delay. The problem was that Hugh also knew it.
"Unlike with the MacLeods, all I must do to disperse Hugh's pirates is find my slippery uncle and kill him," Connor said. "That's more a matter of luck than strength."
They both knew it would require more than luck. Hugh's men were foul, but they were good fighters.
"This business between you and Hugh is personal," Lachlan said, trying a different tack. "Don't give him what he wants. Send some of us to fight him, while you stay here and hold the castle."
"It is personal," Connor said, pausing in his preparations to fix his steely gaze on Lachlan. "That's exactly why I must be the one to go after him."
If Lachlan had been able to persuade Connor to let him lead the attack, he could have pretended to stumble upon Hugh's lair by chance. Now he had to tell Connor where it was without giving away how he came by the information.
"When I was out among our people this time, I heard that Hugh had taken over the old house next to the creek at the south end of Staffin Bay," Lachlan said, feeling uneasy about giving him a half-truth. "That's a short distance from where the attack occurred, so I suspect he's still camped there."
"We'll look for the house, but if you've heard of it, most likely Hugh has already left it," Connor said. "My uncle is famous for slipping away into the mist."
"I'll see that the men and galleys are ready," Lachlan said, intending to make certain he was in Connor's boat. "How many of us do ye want to take with ye?"
"One galley, twenty men," Connor said as he strapped on his claymore. "Both you and Sorely are staying here."
"But - "
"I can't leave the castle vulnerable to an attack by the MacLeods," Connor said, cutting him off. "I need ye here."
"Take care then," Lachlan said as they gripped forearms in a warrior's farewell. "Watch for an ambush."
"Always," Connor said breaking into an unexpected grin. "Haven't ye heard? I'm a hard man to kill."
* * *
Connor stood at the bow, peering through the dense night fog that lay over the water. They were nearing Staffin Bay. If Lachlan was right, Hugh had his camp here, and he would have men watching. Though Connor could not see it, the long, low offshore island that sheltered the bay lay just ahead. The narrow inside passage was a perfect place to trap a passing boat, and Hugh knew Connor was coming. If he were Hugh, he would post a lookout on the island.
The fog was too thick for the men to see a hand signal and maintaining absolute silence was essential now, so Connor crossed the length of the galley, moving between the men working the oars, to speak to the man at the rudder.
"Steer us to the outer side of the small island," he said close to the man's ear. "Bring the boat to shore there."
Connor's cousin Alex had a sixth sense on the water and could navigate blind, but the man steering tonight was familiar with this part of Trotternish and did well enough. Soon Connor heard the lap of waves hitting the beach, and the shoreline emerged to his right. As they glided into the shallows, Connor moved between the men again and tapped the shoulders of the two he wanted to go ashore with him.
The small island was barren of trees, which meant sound would travel over it almost as well as across the water. Before they left the boat, he whispered instructions to the two going with him. They would not speak again.
The cold, damp air felt heavy in his lungs as they ran the short distance across the width of the island, keeping close enough to see each other. When the ground sloped downward toward the opposite shore, they slowed their steps. Connor strained his ears for the sound of voices or the crackle of a campfire.
Nothing. Damn.
When they reached the shore, he stood still for a long moment, listening hard. He thought he heard a voice across the bay, but none closer. Stopping on the island had been a waste of time. Hugh must have moved his camp or set a different trap for him.
But wait. What was that? Connor heard something - probably just a deer - move up the shoreline to his right. Signaling to his partners to follow, he veered inland until he was behind whatever had made the noise. The fog was so thick that he almost fell over Hugh's lookouts before one of them spoke.
"Hugh's nephew won't come tonight in this fog, will he?" the voice said.
Connor made out three men sitting in the beach grass just above the shore, facing the bay.
"Hugh was certain nothing would stop his nephew from coming once that old farmer told him what we did," another of the lookouts said. "The farm is just south of here. If that's where Connor's going, he'll pass through here."
Connor narrowed his eyes, trying to see better. One of the men had his hand on a taut rope that was tied to a rock beside him. The other end of the rope stretched out to sea, a clever method, which he suspected Hugh had devised, for extending their vision on a foggy night. By running a rope from the offshore island to a boat midway across the bay, and probably a second rope from the boat to lookouts on the shore of the bay, Hugh's men would be alerted to a passing galley that would otherwise be hidden in the fog.
Connor considered taking one of the lookouts prisoner to question him, but it was better to keep this simple. The risk of someone calling out was too great.
"Weren't you the lucky one, getting the daughter first," one of the men said, keeping his voice low. "The lass was hardly worth the trouble by the time I had my turn."
"But the mother still had some life in her," the third said, and they all laughed quietly.
On his signal, Connor and his partners slit the lookouts' throats soundlessly. He regretted he had neither the time nor patience to give them a slower, more painful death.
Now that he had discovered Hugh's trap, he could avoid it. After returning to the galley, they continued along the outer shore of the island, rounded its southern tip, and entered the bay from the south, the opposite end from which they were expected. The creek Lachlan described was nearby, and they came upon it quickly.
The fortuitous timing of Lachlan's discovery of the location of Hugh's lair raised questions in Connor's mind, though his information appeared to be correct. He was not completely certain of Lachlan's loyalty to him. And yet he did trust the big, fair-haired warrior to protect his fellow clansmen in the castle - and Ilysa, in particular - in Connor's absence. It had not been easy to leave Lachlan with her. Her safety, however, was far more important than his own petty jealousy.
The fog thinned as Connor and his men followed the creek up the hill, but the night was still dark. When he reached the top of the rise, he saw windows lit by the glow of a lamp or hearth fire. Gradually, he made out the dark shape of a long, one-story building.
His heart beat fast. At long last, he had found his uncle. Hugh had not yet abandoned the house. Connor had been this close before, however, only to have Hugh escape. He was a slippery devil who could be counted on to save his own skin first. This time, Connor was determined to catch him before he slithered away into the black night.
Connor stationed men at every window and positioned himself with the rest at the door. Two men held a log, waiting for Connor's signal to break it down. Connor's muscles were taut with tension. Every sound in the night seemed unnaturally loud to his heightened senses.
That was what finally alerted him that something was wrong. The house was far too quiet.
"Run!" he shouted. "It's a trap!"
An instant later, Hugh's men poured out of the woods behind the house.
* * *
Ilysa was in the kitchen talking with Cook late at night when she felt a coldness pass over her.
"Ye look like someone walked over your grave," Cook said and rested his hand on her shoulder.
"Connor is in danger," she said.
"Of course he is." Cook shoved a cup of wine in front of her. "Our brave chieftain is in danger every time he sets foot out of the castle - and I expect he's in danger here as well, if your suspicion about a traitor inside the castle is true."
Knowing there was a general risk of danger to Connor was different from this certainty in her gut that someone was trying to kill him right now. Ilysa gulped down the wine.
She had said prayers and protective chants for Connor and the other men under her breath all day as she went about her work. If there was a full moon tonight, she would have braved going to the faery glen.
"Tell me who ye think our traitor is," Cook said, "and I'll poison his bowl of stew."
"I'd only be guessing," she said.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Cook said.
"No poisoning," Ilysa scolded, though she did not believe he was serious - at least, she did not think he was. She kissed his cheek. "'Tis late. I'm going to bed."
Before going to her own bedchamber, Ilysa decided to visit Connor's. She felt his presence most there, and, perhaps it was silly, but it reassured her to touch his things. She slipped through the doorway from the hall into the adjoining building. When she reached Connor's door, she nearly collided with someone coming out.
"Sorely, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"I might ask you the same," Sorely said, and she did not like the way he looked her up and down.
He was a crude man, but then, most of the former chieftain's guards were. She suddenly remembered the servants in the kitchen talking about how the tough old warrior was afraid of the nursemaid's ghost.
"Ye came up here to see the ghost, didn't ye?" she asked.
"Some of the men dared me," he said with a swagger.
If he'd come on a dare, the other men would be watching, not snoring in the hall. So why had he come up here? Perhaps he was aware that he'd been the subject of ridicule and wanted to overcome his fear in private.
"I didn't see anything," he said. After a hesitation, he asked, "Have you seen her?"
"I saw the ghosts of two women here." Ilysa said it to throw him off balance and hurry him along, though it was true.
Sorely's eyes went wide, and he turned to look over his shoulder into the room.
"I don't expect they'll come after ye." She paused. "Unless they have good cause."
"Ye hide a nasty sense of humor behind that innocent face," Sorely snarled, but he left her quickly, which had been her aim.
Ilysa had come hoping to find solace in Connor's chamber. The moment she crossed the threshold, however, she felt engulfed in sadness. Had she inadvertently summoned the despair of the two women, or did it have to do with Connor?
The Sight was fickle and told her nothing.
* * *
Dawn broke over the sea and shone on the haggard faces of the rowers. By a miracle, Connor had only lost two of his warriors in the fight against Hugh's pirates, and all the survivors had made it to the boat. Another six were injured, though none badly enough to force him to return to the castle.
Connor gave the order to continue south. Before long, burned-out cottages dotted the coastline. They stopped at each one, looking for survivors and offering what help they could. By the time they reached the end of Hugh's path of destruction and turned around, Connor was so weary and heartsick he could hardly hold his head up.
He had seen too many burned cottages, heard too many tales of murder and rape.