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Connor gripped his cup so tightly his knuckles were white as he listened to John Campbell tell how Alexander of Dunivaig had attacked and killed MacIain and MacIain's two oldest sons, who were his own wife's father and brothers. Twenty-some years of marriage and six children of shared blood had only masked, not erased, Alexander's drive for vengeance against his wife's clan. MacIain had finally been held to account for his treachery that resulted in the execution of three generations of Alexander's family - his grandfather, father, and brothers.
How could Alexander face his wife after killing her father and brothers? Connor recalled sitting at their table and observing what he thought was genuine affection between Alexander and his wife. Connor felt sorry for the poor woman. His own efforts to create a reliable alliance through marriage seemed futile. While such marriages sometimes succeeded in forging strong allegiances, just as often they ended in blood feuds.
"Can I call upon the friendship between our clans and ask ye to join our battle?" Connor asked John Campbell, though he knew it was pointless.
"That friendship is what will keep us from fighting on the side of the MacLeods," John said, raising his cup to Connor. "I do hope you're not too aggrieved that I came to retrieve MacIain's granddaughter."
The Campbells had moved with their usual stunning speed to take control of the MacIain's lands. Before the dead chieftain's body was in the grave, the Campbells claimed guardianship over his only surviving son, a boy of nine, whose mother was a Campbell. Connor doubted the son would ever gain control over MacIain lands. Similarly, John Campbell had been dispatched to collect Jane, whose marriage would be arranged to better suit Campbell interests.
"I regret giving up my bride, of course," Connor lied, as there was an advantage to letting the Campbells believe they owed him a favor. "But Jane and I part on good terms."
That much was true. Jane, who was upstairs joyfully packing, was almost as relieved as he was to avoid a marriage destined to make them both miserable. But Connor could not help thinking that if she had never arrived, Ilysa would still be spending her nights in his bed.
* * *
Lachlan decided he was still captain since Connor had not said he wasn't. While the chieftain drank whiskey with his guest, Lachlan made sure the men had their weapons and supplies ready. He marveled at Connor's patience. With a battle to be fought, he had to sit inside the keep playing host to the Thane of Cawdor, who looked to be an arrogant son of bitch if there ever was one.
He turned to find Robbie, one of the young men he and Connor had trained, running toward him with a bloody dirk in his hand.
"What's happened?" Lachlan asked.
"I think I killed Sorely."
"Take me to him," Lachlan said. "Ye can tell me why ye did it on the way."
His own calm seemed to settle Robbie, which was good. Lachlan didn't want a garbled explanation.
"I was guarding the gate, like ye told me," Robbie said as they crossed the courtyard. "I let everyone in and no one out."
The gist of the story was that when it was most chaotic with all the newly arrived guests and warriors coming in, Sorely tried to leave. When Robbie stopped him, Sorely started to argue and then suggested they go inside the gatehouse to discuss it.
"As soon as I went through the door, he tried to dirk me," Robbie said, his eyes wide. "Without thinking, I did exactly as ye taught me. Next thing I know, Sorely's on the floor bleeding. I think he's dead."
"Sometimes a man isn't as dead as he looks." Lachlan walked faster and hoped Sorely was still there.
When he entered the gatehouse, Sorely had dragged himself a few feet across the floor.
"Ye don't look as if you're going to last," Lachlan said, kneeling beside him. "That will save us the trouble of executing ye since I assume you're the one who murdered the two guards."
"To hell with ye, Lachlan," Sorely said and spit out blood.
"Ye want to tell me why you're a miserable traitor to your clan?" In Lachlan's experience, men wanted to talk at the end, and he suspected Sorely would want to justify himself.
"Ye think ye know so much," Sorely said in a rasping voice. "But I'd wager ye don't know your mother was murdered."
"Mind the door," Lachlan said to Robbie, wanting him out of earshot.
Lachlan was not going to give Sorely the satisfaction of asking. Sorely wanted to tell him, so he waited, hoping the man wouldn't die before he got the words out.
"Hugh pushed her! Aye, that's right. Your da has been helping the man who killed her. Isn't that a laugh?" Blood seeped through Sorely's teeth in a grisly grin. "I told Hugh that your mother was carrying another child of the chieftain's, so he got rid of her."
Lachlan was tempted to put his hand around Sorely's throat and speed his journey to hell. Instead, he asked, "How would ye know she was with child?"
"Jenny told me," Sorely said, and tears suddenly filled his eyes. "No one knew, but we were sweethearts."
Who in the hell was Jenny? Then it struck him. "Jenny was the nursemaid. That's why ye see her ghost."
"She was waving to me when she dropped the babe," Sorely said. "The chieftain didn't have to cast her adrift at sea. She never meant to harm the child."
He was blubbering so that Lachlan could almost feel sorry for him - until something else occurred to him. "Ye didn't try to save Jenny, did ye? Ye didn't speak to the chieftain on her behalf or go out in a boat to rescue her."
"I couldn't!" Sorely choked out. "The chieftain would have banished me, and I would have lost my place in his guard."
"I guess that explains why she haunted ye." Lachlan was disgusted with him. "I suppose ye held what the chieftain did to her against Connor." That's what his own father had done.
"I was willing to forgive all...when I thought Connor...would make me captain," Sorely said, his voice growing weaker with each breath. "But he kept delaying...and delaying..."
His voice faded, and his head fell to the side.
"What a sorry excuse for a MacDonald." Lachlan got up and went to the door. "Ye did well, Robbie. It would have been a damned shame to lose a good man like you to his blade. I'll report this to the chieftain."
Lachlan would tell Connor everything except what Sorely said about his mother and father. That was no one's business but his own.
* * *
"The MacLeods are coming," Connor called out, raising his arms. "'Tis time to raise the clan."
Every man, woman, and child in the castle was gathered around the blazing bonfire that had been built in the center of the castle yard for the ceremony of the crann tara.
Duncan, Ian, and Alex, the three men Connor trusted above all others, stood to his right, each holding a wooden cross. He thought of their wives and children and prayed the men would survive the battle ahead. To his left stood three of the young Trotternish warriors he and Lachlan had trained.
Duncan's eyes were fierce as he gave Connor the first wooden cross. "We fight to the death!" he shouted, and all the men cheered.
Connor held the cross in the bonfire until the dry wood caught flame, then he held it high for all to see it blaze against the afternoon sky. It hissed as he doused the flames in the waiting tub of sheep's blood. He raised the charred cross over his head again and shouted the MacDonald battle cry, "Fraoch Eilean!"
The castle yard reverberated with the deep voices of the men as they shouted it back. Finally, he motioned to Robbie, the first young warrior to his left, who had earned the honor by catching Hugh's spy.
"Let our men know the MacDonalds are gathering at the standing stone to fight!" Connor shouted, and Robbie took the charred cross from him and ran out the open gate.
Connor repeated the ceremony two more times, taking the crosses from Alex and Ian, and sending each of the young warriors to raise the men in a different part of the peninsula.
The crann tara was a call to every man, whether he be warrior, farmer, or shepherd, to gather at the designated rallying point, prepared to fight for the clan. Most of the clan's trained warriors came from Sleat and North Uist and were already at the castle. The crann tara would be a test of the confidence Connor's Trotternish clansmen had in him as chieftain, and he wondered how many of them would come.
When the ceremony was complete, the men shouted and raised their claymores. Connor saw the battle lust in their eyes, and he was glad to see they were ready to fight. The responsibility for the lives of these brave men fell on his shoulders.
He knew he would have found the burden easier to carry if Ilysa were here to send him off to war.