The Chieftain
Chapter 31

 Margaret Mallory

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Connor took the three steps from the tower in one stride, tossed his clothes on, and grabbed his claymore as he ran out the door.
"What is it?" Ilysa called after him.
"We're being attacked!" He repeated the cry to awaken the men when he reached the hall. "Everyone outside!"
Connor burst out of the keep and ran hard for the gate. Ensuring it was secure was the first task in defending the castle. The sky was already a shade lighter with dawn nearing.
O shluagh! Connor's heart flipped over in his chest as he made out two figures slumped on the ground inside the gate. When he was a few yards from the downed guards, he could see in the growing light that the gate was unbarred. He heard running feet on the other side and ran faster. Leaping over the bodies, he flung himself against the gate.
Thump, thump. The gate bounced against his shoulder as men banged on the other side, trying to force the gate open. Connor braced his legs against the weight pounding against it. A gap inched open, and the shouts of the attackers rang in his ears. He rammed the heavy bar across, but he could not bring it home.
"No!" All would be lost if the enemy came through the gate. Gritting his teeth, Connor gave a final push and slammed the bar across.
No sooner had he secured the gate than he was surrounded by a dozen warriors who had followed him from the hall. He had only been alone at the gate for a few short moments, but battles and wars were won or lost in such moments.
"Drop the portcullis!" he shouted.
Someone followed his order, for he heard the rapid clank clank clank of the chain as the heavy iron grate fell free, quickly followed by the anguished cries of the men caught under its sharp points.
"To the walls!" Connor shouted, and waved for the men to go up to repel the attackers.
While he gave orders, a part of his mind grappled with what he had seen. The two dead guards. The unbarred gate. It could have been a disaster, the battle for the castle over almost before it began. That was the plan. While the MacDonald warriors slept, someone had killed the two guards and opened the gate.
There was a viper inside the castle.
* * *
After Ilysa had seen to all of the wounded who had been carried into the hall, she left Cook in charge and went outside to look for more injured. From the steps of the keep, she surveyed the chaos of the attack in the slanting streaks of dawn light. Arrows sailed into the courtyard. Several men were busy propping logs at an angle against the gate, which shook with a rhythmic pounding. Above her, warriors were fighting hand-to-hand with attackers who had scaled the walls.
She watched in horror as one of the MacDonald warriors fell backward off the wall. He landed with a thud and lay twitching with his legs splayed at awkward angles. Ilysa ran across the courtyard and dropped to her knees beside the fallen man. There was a dirk in his chest. His body was still now, and his eyes open and unseeing. There was nothing she could do for him.
Overcome, she covered her face and keened over him. But this was no time for weakness, so she forced herself to stop. There were others who needed her attention.
As she struggled to her feet, she saw Connor watching her from across the courtyard. When their eyes met, the sounds and sights of the battle faded, and there was only the two of them. It could not have lasted more than an instant, but she felt as if time itself stopped.
Then he waved his arm and shouted, "Get inside!"
She ran back to the keep. From the protection of the doorway, she turned and saw him climbing a ladder up the wall with a dirk between his teeth.
Lachlan followed him, carrying a bow and arrows. Once they were on the wall, Connor fed arrows to Lachlan, who shot them, one after another in quick succession. Between shots, Connor pointed, apparently choosing targets. She guessed he was picking out the leaders or the most formidable-looking warriors.
Connor left Lachlan on his own while he knocked one enemy and then another off the wall. Ach, he was a wonder with a sword. Ilysa had her own part to play. When she saw a man limping toward the keep, dragging his bleeding leg, she hurried to help him. This one, she could save.
* * *
Connor was not surprised to find that the attackers were Hugh's men, rather than MacLeods. A traitor in the castle was far more likely to have a connection to Connor's rival within the clan than to their enemy clan.
The one bright light in this miserable day was discovering Lachlan's deadly skill with a bow and arrow. Hugh's men shot their arrows blindly into the castle, occasionally making a lucky hit. But there was no luck involved with Lachlan's bow - except bad luck for anyone in his aim. Unfortunately, Hugh did not show himself. Connor suspected he was watching from the safety of his damned boat. Hugh could wield a sword with the best of them, but he was judicious about risking his neck when he could be.
"Bring buckets of water!" Connor shouted when he saw that the thatched roof of one of the storerooms along the wall was in flames.
Before the words were out of his mouth, he saw Ilysa leading three women across the courtyard, all of them carrying sloshing buckets. An arrow whizzed by Ilysa's head, and his heart stopped. If the woman did not stay inside, he was going to tie her to a goddamned chair.
When he caught up with her, he handed her bucket to the nearest man, picked her up, and shouted at the other women to leave their pails and get the hell inside.
"Stay in the keep where ye can't be hurt," he ordered Ilysa after he set her down on the steps.
"I'll try," she said.
By the saints, she was stubborn. But what a woman - she was as courageous as any of his warriors. Connor gripped her shoulders and kissed her full on the lips.
"I have a battle to fight," he told her. "I can't be worrying about ye, so you'll do as I say."
This time, she nodded, and he kissed her again for that.
* * *
Though he was tired from the battle, Connor could not sleep. He kept thinking about the two men at the gate, murdered by someone they thought was a friend. At least his men would be less vulnerable now that they knew to be on guard against an enemy within. Trust was essential, however, for them to fight well together. Connor must find the culprit and soon.
His thoughts bounced back and forth between that scene at the gate and the arrow whizzing by Ilysa's head. Dear God, if something had happened to her, he would never forgive himself.
The attack on the castle served to reinforce how important it was to control the surrounding countryside and, hence, to secure MacIain's help. Soon, his bride would arrive, and he would lose Ilysa. What would he do without her?
In truth, he was not even trying to sleep. The little time he had left with her was too precious to waste in oblivious slumber. Each night was both a valued gift and a torture, knowing it could be his last.
"Are ye awake?" Ilysa asked in a soft voice.
"Aye." He kissed her hair and held her closer.
"I've made up my mind," she said.
"About what, mo chroi?" He steeled himself to hear her ask him to have a boat ready in the morning to take her back to Dunscaith. His heart was in her hands.
"If ye want me to, I'll stay after she comes" - her voice caught as she added - "and after you're wed."
He closed his eyes. This was both what he wanted and what he hoped she would never say.
"I fear it will make ye unhappy to share the household with another woman." Connor did not add, and share me, but it hung in the air between them.
"It may," she said, "but I would be more unhappy without ye."
Connor felt overwhelmed with relief and guilt.
"I will feel badly for her," Ilysa said, turning her face away from him.
That was so like Ilysa. "Most chieftains have more than one woman. Her grandfathers are chieftains, so she will expect it," he said, stroking her back. "Having no woman but my wife was my rule, made in the arrogance of ignorance."
"'Tis the church's rule as well," Ilysa said without much conviction.
The church had many rules that were not strictly followed in the Highlands. Here, priests were so few that marriages were generally blessed, if at all, at the same time the couple's first child was christened. Under Celtic tradition, illegitimate children were claimed with no shame. Both men and women could set aside a marriage for a variety of grounds, including the woman's failure to bear a child and the man's failure to perform his husbandly duty in bed.
"I expect my wife will be content so long as I treat her with respect and" - he made himself say it - "give her children."
Ilysa was so still Connor wanted to take it back and tell her he wanted only her, which he did. But he needed to be honest about how it would be - how it had to be - if she stayed.
"I have a duty to her. This is not her fault, and I will give her what is her due," he said. "Can ye accept that?"
Ilysa nodded against his chest, and he hated himself.
"She will understand that our marriage is an alliance between clans, nothing more," he said.
"She's a woman," Ilysa said. "No matter what she understands, she'll hope for love."
"That she can never have," Connor said. "No matter if ye stay or go, my heart is yours."
He made love to her slowly, needing to show her with each touch, each kiss, each stroke, how much she meant to him. Until now, he had held back some essential part of himself that he had never trusted to a woman - at least not since he was a boy of seven and his mother left without a second thought for him.
He was a cautious man who laid aside all caution. He bared his soul to Ilysa and let her own his heart.