The Chieftain
Chapter 45

 Margaret Mallory

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Connor was relieved when everything went as he and Alastair MacLeod had agreed. Though he had learned to trust Ilysa, he doubted he would ever fully trust her grandfather.
They made a pretense of negotiating the truce in the presence of their respective guards. As promised, Alastair agreed to withdraw his warriors from Trotternish, and Connor pledged a payment to compensate for Sorely's acts. Though he had no idea how he would raise such a vast sum, he would do it. His clan's lands were finally restored. And, without the constant threat from the MacLeods, he could turn his full attention to Hugh, who had been suspiciously quiet.
Connor sent the Trotternish men to their homes to share the good news and sent the rest of his warriors ahead to the castle so he could speak freely with Duncan, Ian, and Alex.
"Ilysa and I plan to marry," he told them, which seemed to surprise only Duncan.
Duncan was too stunned to speak at first, and before he could get any words out, Lachlan came running toward them from up the path.
"They're gone!" Lachlan shouted.
Connor's stomach tightened into a knot. "Who's gone?"
"Malcom is dead. My sister and the children are gone." Lachlan's chest heaved as he spoke between gasps for air. "Ilysa is missing as well."
The blood drained from Connor's head. God, no!
He ran until he reached the cottage. Just outside the open door, he saw a child's rag doll. Inside, Malcom lay sprawled across the floor, a thick line of blood across his throat. The table was on its side and broken crockery littered the floor.
"It has to be Hugh who took them," Connor said.
"He must have found out Ilysa was here," Lachlan said, behind him. "He wouldn't have done this just to take Flora and the children."
Duncan knelt beside Malcom's body. "He's been dead a couple of hours, at least."
"So many of our men passed this way since then," Alex said, "that we won't be able to find Hugh's tracks."
"Where would Hugh take them?" Connor ran his hands through his hair, trying desperately to think.
"We must go to my father's," Lachlan said. "He can lead us to Hugh."
* * *
"The children can't walk this fast," Ilysa called to Hugh, who was at the front of the motley group of men herding them east across the peninsula. "We must slow down."
"Any who can't keep up will join their father," Hugh said, which made the children cry harder.
"Damn ye, Hugh." Ilysa was furious. "You're making it worse."
Hugh walked back to the girl who had fallen farthest behind, lifted her off the ground by her thin arm, and pulled his dirk.
"No!" Ilysa dropped Brigid and threw herself over the girl. As they crashed to the ground, she felt a sharp pain where Hugh's dirk caught her shoulder. She looked up into his hard eyes and said, "I'll carry her, too."
"Just remember, I only need one of these bairns to make sure ye do as you're told," he said. "I'll not risk having those four find us before I'm ready."
"If ye harm these children, you'll have the entire clan after ye," she said.
"Once Connor is dead, I'll be chieftain," Hugh said with a smirk. "And people have a way of forgiving a chieftain."
* * *
"Why would your father know where to find Hugh?" Duncan demanded, his eyes as cold as a winter's pond.
Sweat broke out on Lachlan's forehead at the thought of his nieces and nephews in the hands of Hugh's men, and the fate of the two women was sure to be worse. Nothing else would have made him confess what he'd done to the four warriors glowering at him.
"My father is a traitor, and for a time, I was as well." He paused. "I'm the man who shot the arrows at ye when ye were hunting near Dunscaith."
Duncan roared and had his hands around Lachlan's throat before the others pulled him off.
"Let him speak," Connor commanded.
"I can explain on the way," Lachlan said. "I've seen these foul men, and we must hurry."
"Let's go," Connor ordered.
Lachlan led them on the path across the peninsula that he had taken a thousand times between his sister's and his father's cottages. It was a distance of several miles and, on the way, he told them everything about his parents and how his father raised him to seek vengeance for the family.
"Ach, let's kill him now," Duncan said after Lachlan finished. "There's no excuse for what he did."
"Ilysa trusts him," Connor said. "I want to know why."
"Some say she has The Sight, and I believe it," Lachlan said. "She was the only one who saw that I harbored a dark secret that threatened you and was destroying me. She set out to persuade me that ye merited my loyalty."
"Ilysa never told me she suspected ye were a traitor," Connor said, turning eyes like blue ice on him.
"She had no proof. My guess is she didn't think you'd believe her," Lachlan said and saw a flash of pain cross Connor's face. "She did threaten to kill me if I caused ye harm."
"She would have done it, too," Alex said with a laugh.
"Eventually I saw for myself that she was right. I've done nothing against ye since."
When they reached his father's, Lachlan went inside alone. He had not been here since he had told his father he would never act against Connor again.
"How dare ye step into this house after turning your back on your duty," his father greeted him.
"Hugh has murdered Malcom and taken Flora and the children hostage. Ye must tell me where to find him." Lachlan's heart sank when his father's stony expression remained unchanged. "What kind of man are ye?"
"One who will have my vengeance," his father said.
"You're a fool. All these years, ye blamed the wrong man," Lachlan said. "Your friend Hugh murdered her."
"You're lying!"
"I heard it from a dying man's lips that Hugh pushed her off that bluff," Lachlan said. "But I think it was you who put her there. She couldn't stand to live with ye, could she?"
His father crumpled into a chair and covered his face.
When Lachlan picked him up by the front of his shirt, he was surprised by how light he was - the man he had looked up to all through his boyhood was a pathetic bag of bones.
"Now you're going to tell me where to find Hugh," Lachlan said. "And then you're going to be a man and save Connor the trouble of dealing with ye."