The Chieftain
Chapter 46

 Margaret Mallory

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Hugh's camp is on Creag-na-Feile, the high cliff just up the coast," Lachlan said, looking pale and grim after emerging from his father's house. "He has fifty men there."
"Ten for each of us, not bad odds," Alex quipped, though Connor knew he was as worried as the rest of them.
They took the path up to the soaring basalt rock cliffs at a dead run. Connor looked down the sheer two-hundred-foot drop, and a shiver went through him as he thought of the battered body of Lachlan's mother at the base of the cliff.
When he saw the smoke from a fire rising from a small stand of trees, he raised his hand to signal that the camp was just ahead. They crouched in a circle to make their plan.
"Hugh has too many men. A simple attack would put the women and children at risk," Alex said. "We must come up with some other plan."
"Leaving them with those men puts them at risk as well," Duncan said. "We can't wait."
"You're both right," Connor said. "It's me Hugh wants. I'll offer myself in exchange for the hostages."
"No," Ian said, "the clan cannot afford to lose ye."
"I've made my decision," Connor said, rising.
"Wait, there is another way."
The four of them turned as one to look at Lachlan. The circle of trust among Connor, his cousins, and Duncan stretched back to boyhood, and they were unaccustomed to relying on anyone else in matters as grave as this.
"I shot my first arrow at Ian that day because I mistook him for Connor," Lachlan said. "From any distance, 'tis impossible to tell the two of ye apart."
"I see," Ian said at once. "I can go in for Connor."
"No," Connor said. "You're not dying for me."
"I don't intend to," Ian said, a slow smile spreading across his face. "I think Lachlan is suggesting I serve as bait to lure Hugh out."
* * *
The few trees around the camp afforded little protection from the wind and rain. As Ilysa huddled with Flora and the children near the smoky fire, she kept a wary eye on the men who encircled them like wolves. The throbbing cut on her shoulder was nothing to what these foul men had in mind for her and Flora. While she was certain Connor and the others would find them, it might not be soon enough.
"I fear we've no chance of escaping before dark," Flora breathed in Ilysa's ear.
"Aye, I must act now," Ilysa said and whispered her plan.
She reached into the leather pouch tied to her belt for her dried herbs. In the weeks that Hugh had held Dunscaith, she had protected herself by spreading the rumor that she had learned dark magic from Tearlag. Only a few of these men had been with Hugh then, but that was a start.
"I am a daughter of the Sea Witch!" she cried out in a loud voice as she stood and raised her arms. "I will curse any man who harms us!"
She tossed some of the herbs onto the fire and sparks flew high into the sky. The men who had started to laugh stopped abruptly.
"I was born at midnight on a night of the full moon," she said as she walked slowly around the fire, meeting the eyes of each man. Every Highlander knew these were signs of someone born with The Sight. "I can see your future. Every one of ye who remains here shall be dead by morning."
* * *
As Connor crept through the grass toward the camp, he was astonished to hear Ilysa's voice carried on the wind - and no others. He moved closer and saw her circling the fire.
"I see your blood!" she called out, and sparks flew from her fingers as they had at the faery glen. Then she swept her arm around the circle, pointing as she spoke in an ominous voice. "Mle marbhphaisg ort!" A thousand death shrouds on you. "A' phlaigh ort!" A plague on you!
With their attention riveted on Ilysa, none of Hugh's men noticed Alex and Duncan, who were creeping around the other side of the camp to get closer to Flora and the children. Their task was to separate Flora and the children from their captors as quickly as possible and protect them. When Duncan and Alex were in position, Connor signaled to Ian and Lachlan.
"Hugh!" Lachlan called from the opposite side of the camp and twenty yards out. He held Ian in front of him, with his arm locked around Ian's throat and his dirk pricking his side.
Hugh dumped Rhona off his lap and strode to the edge of the camp.
"I've captured Connor," Lachlan shouted, "and I'm willing to make a trade."
Ian's black hair fell over his face as he lolled his head forward. Blood ran down his temple - a nice touch - and the chieftain's brooch was visible on his shoulder.
Connor waited, every muscle taut. Hugh hesitated, then finally signaled to his men to follow him. As soon as they moved away, Alex and Duncan put themselves between Hugh's men and Flora and the children. Fear choked Connor when he saw that Ilysa was on the opposite side of the fire and unprotected.
"Here I am, Uncle," he said, rising to his feet. "Come and get me."
Hugh looked back and forth between him and Ian, confusion on his face. By now, Lachlan and Ian had also pulled their swords, and the three of them converged on Hugh. If they could kill him, there was a good chance the others would flee.
Hugh was quick and fell back among his men. The fight began in earnest then. Connor swung his claymore side to side, slashing pirates and dodging blades, trying to get to Hugh, but there were always more men in his way.
After a while, the odds did not seem quite as bad. He saw a few of the pirates and Rhona fleeing across the field. A moment later, he saw sparks and knew why.
"Every one of ye shall die!" Ilysa was shouting from beside the fire. "I see your blood! I see your death shrouds!"
Ilysa's efforts were helping considerably, but he wished to hell she would not call attention to herself. He looked to Alex and Duncan, who were closer to her, but they had their hands full battling men near the children. Leaving Hugh to Ian and Lachlan, Connor worked his way toward Ilysa.
Then, through the melee, he saw Hugh moving toward her, too. Connor fought like a madman, killing one, two, three men who stood in his way. By then, Hugh was dragging Ilysa away from the camp.
Connor finally broke free and followed Ilysa's screams at a dead run. Hugh had her over his shoulder and was headed for the path along the cliff. Connor was younger and faster, and he was sure he could catch Hugh before he got very far. But when Hugh reached the edge of the cliff, he did not turn and follow the path.
Fear struck Connor like a bolt of lightning, and he slowed his steps. Hugh held Ilysa off her feet against his side as he stood with his back to the cliff. Connor couldn't breathe when he saw how close Hugh's heels were to the edge. The ground could easily crumble beneath his feet and send them both plunging backward.
"It's finished, Hugh," he called over the wind. "There's no escape."
"Then I'm taking her with me!"
Hugh glanced over his shoulder, and Ilysa shrieked as he teetered backward. Connor's heart stopped beating until the man regained his balance.
"For God's sake, Hugh, get away from the edge," Connor said and started toward them.
"Stay back, or I'll toss her over right now," Hugh said.
"Let her go," Connor said. "Ye have no grudge against her."
"No, but I'll take my revenge against you the same way I did your father."
"I know what ye did to Lachlan's mother." Connor caught Ilysa's eye and inched forward. Somehow he would get to her in time. "But ye can't do that this time and save yourself."
"I admit," Hugh said with a laugh, "I'll enjoy this less than sending your father's lover over the cliff alone."
"My father had lots of women," Connor said. "Ye were a fool to think ye could hurt him that way."
"Oh, I did have my revenge," Hugh said. "He had a mindless passion for your mother, and he never recovered from her death."
"What do ye know about that?" Connor said, trying to divert Hugh as he moved forward a bit more.
"It was me she ran off with," Hugh said.
Connor maintained his focus, though he was shocked by the revelation. A few more steps, and he would be close enough to lunge for Ilysa.
"Ye didn't know that, did ye?" Hugh said. "I was eighteen, half my brother's age, with the good looks he used to have, when she chose me."
"My mother didn't give a damn about ye," Connor said.
"We loved each other!" Hugh shouted.
"She only used ye to punish my father," Connor said, easing forward. "Ye were nothing next to him."
"No, she wanted me," Hugh said, his eyes wild.
"She couldn't love a coward like you," Connor spat out. "Why didn't ye die in that storm, Hugh?"
"I - I - "
"You were too afraid of my father to meet her yourself," Connor said, cutting him off. "Ye sent someone else to fetch her."
Sweat trickled down his back. He was almost close enough now. He could not risk shifting his gaze from Hugh to signal Ilysa.
"I did love her," Hugh said. "I just wasn't willing to die for her."
"Then ye don't know what love is."
"I understand it well enough to know how much this is going to make you suffer," Hugh said, his eyes gleaming.
Connor's dirk was already flying through the air when Hugh stepped backward off the cliff, clutching Ilysa. Thunk! The blade struck Hugh through the eye. His arms jerked out, releasing Ilysa, as the two toppled backward.
Connor lunged for her and caught her wrist. With a sudden jerk, he fell flat and was pulled forward until his head and shoulders went over the edge, but he held on.
Ilysa screamed as she dangled from his hand while Hugh fell spread-eagle down the two-hundred-foot cliff.
"Don't look down," he shouted. "I've got ye."
Ilysa fixed her gaze on him and nodded.
Connor's hand was slippery with sweat. He died a thousand deaths as she started sliding from his grasp. Nay, I will not lose her. He dug his toes into the dirt and stretched still farther over the cliff until he caught her forearm with his other hand. He swallowed as he watched her body sway with nothing but the distant sea below her. Then, with all his strength, he hoisted her over the edge to safety. They fell backward tangled together with her lying on top of him.
"That was far too close." He brushed her windblown hair out of her eyes with a shaking hand. His heart was beating so hard he feared he might never recover. "Dear God, I almost lost ye."
"No, ye didn't." Ilysa looked down at him with her sweet smile. "I knew ye would never let me fall."