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Authors: Margaret Mallory

The Chieftain

BOOK: The Chieftain
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For my husband, Bob,

with love and gratitude for our Happily Ever After.

Some things are forever.

I want to give a special thank-you to my editor Alex Logan and my agent Kevan Lyon, who have supported me in countless ways
from the beginning. (Hard to believe it’s been seven books!) Thanks also to the entire team at Grand Central Publishing for
skillfully guiding my books through every stage of the publishing process. I am grateful to Anthea Lawson and Ginny Heim for
their enthusiasm, moral support, and friendship, as well as their helpful feedback on drafts. Dr. James R. MacDonald and Sharron
Gunn have been kind to help me with Gaelic phrases and Scottish history, though any mistakes are mine.

Writing can be a lonely task. Especially during those long stretches before deadlines when I don’t get out of the house—or
my sweatpants—for days, I am grateful to my online community of writers, readers, friends, and acquaintances on Facebook,
Twitter, and RWA loops for much-needed laughter, support, and diversion. As always, my love and thanks to my wonderful family.
And finally, a huge thank-you to my readers. You make it all worthwhile.

Is sleamhainn leac doras an taigh mhòir.

 

The chieftain’s house has a slippery doorstep.

Prologue

DUNSCAITH CASTLEISLE OF SKYE, SCOTLAND1496

 

F
ornicator, philanderer, liar,” Connor’s mother called out as she circled the crackling fire dragging a stick behind her through
the sand. “
Mo mhallachd ort!
” My curse on you!

Connor hugged his knees to his chest as he watched her long, unbound hair swirl about her in the night wind like black snakes.

“May your seed dry up, Donald Gallach, chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat,” she said in a high, quavering voice as she circled
the fire a second time, “so that no woman shall bear you another child.”

Connor wished his friend Duncan or his cousins were here, instead of asleep in the castle hall with his father’s warriors,
as he should be. His father said a seven-year-old who slept on a pallet next to his mother’s bed would never be a great warrior
and had forbidden it. But his father was away, and Connor had been afraid something bad would happen to his mother if he did
not stay close to her.

“May your sons already born by other women die young,” his mother said as she raked her stick around the fire again.

She had been weeping and tearing at her hair for days. She was like that sometimes. Other times, she was like sunshine that
was so bright it hurt your eyes.

But she had never done this before.

“Three times ’round, and the spell is bound.” His mother straightened and raised her stick in the air. “And may ye know it
was I, your wife, who cursed you!”

Connor heard running feet coming through the darkness just before a familiar voice called, “No, Catriona!”

Connor’s heart lifted when Duncan’s mother, Anna, appeared. Her soft voice and kind words could sometimes soothe his mother.
But if Anna saw him, she would send him back to the castle. Before she noticed him, Connor crawled through the beach grass
until he was safely out of the firelight.

“Please, ye mustn’t do this,” Anna said. “An evil spell that’s unwarranted can come back on ye.”

“Donald Gallach deserves every evil wish,” his mother spat out. “With passion and sweet promises of eternal love, he persuaded
me to leave a man who adored me. And now, I discover he’s been keeping a woman up at Trotternish Castle—and she’s borne him
a son!”

“Men have done far worse.” Anna put her arm around his mother’s shoulders. “I beg ye, take back this curse before it’s too
late.”

“It was too late the moment he took another woman to his bed,” his mother said and pushed Anna away. “I swear I will make
that man regret what he’s done to me for the rest of his days.”

“I’m certain you’re the only one the chieftain loves,” Anna said, brushing his mother’s wild tangles back from her face. “Please,
return to the castle and rest.”

“If he believes I will accept this and remain here, a dutiful wife, he has forgotten who I am.” His mother stared into the
fire and smiled in a way that frightened Connor. “How he will rage when I leave him for another man.”

“Ye can’t mean to do that,” Anna said. “What about your children?”

Connor held his breath, trying not to cry, as he waited for her answer.

“Ye know very well that Highland children—especially a chieftain’s children—belong to their father,” she said.

“But they need their mother,” Anna said, gripping her arm again. “And young Connor adores ye.”

“You’re better at mothering them than I am, and I know you’d never let Donald Gallach touch you,” his mother said. “Promise
you’ll take care of Connor and Moira after I leave.”

“I will, but—”

“Don’t go!” Connor ran to his mother and buried his face in her skirts. As always, she smelled of rose petals.

“My sweet, serious lad.” His mother dropped to her knee and embraced him, then she leaned back and asked, “Ye want your mother
to be happy, don’t ye?”

Connor nodded. If she were happy, she would stay.

“You were begat of fiery passion, when I owned your father’s heart,” she said, holding his face between her hands. “Every
time your father looks at you, he will remember how it was between us and regret what he’s lost.”

*  *  *

One night, Connor slept too soundly, and his mother disappeared.

When he awoke, a storm raged outside, and the castle was in an uproar. His father had returned after weeks away and was bellowing
at everyone.

“Ye follow your mother about like a dog.” His father lifted Connor off his feet, shook him, and shouted in his face. “Ye must
have seen her with someone. Who did she leave with? Tell me!”

His father’s fingers dug into his arms, but Connor did not say a word. Even if he had known where his mother was, he would
never betray her. And if he was very good, she might come back for him.

His father sent his galleys in every direction, despite the storm. By the next day, an eerie calm had settled over the sea.
Connor was outside with Ragnall, his father’s son by his first wife, when one of the galleys returned. As soon as he saw a
warrior carrying his mother from the boat, her limbs and long black hair swaying with his long strides, Connor started running.

“No, Connor!” Ragnall shouted.

He darted out of his brother’s reach and scrambled down to the beach. But Ragnall was ten years older, a grown man, and he
caught Connor before he reached her.

Ragnall neither chastised nor tried to soothe him, but simply held Connor against his solid frame, heavily muscled from constant
training. Connor strained to see his mother through the warriors who had crowded around her.

“Even in death, she commands the attention of every man,” Ragnall said under his breath. “By the saints, your mother was beautiful.”

Was?
Connor did not understand, but fear knotted his belly.

The men suddenly parted to let the chieftain through. As their father brushed past Connor and Ragnall, his gaze was fixed
on the limp body that was draped over the warrior’s arms like an offering.

“Their galley capsized in the storm, and all were lost,” the warrior said when his father came to a halt before him. “A farmer
found her body washed up on shore.”

The muscles of his father’s jaw clenched and unclenched as his gaze traveled over her.

“Let me see her!” Connor wailed, reaching his arms out to her.

His father pivoted and fixed his fierce golden eyes on him. Ragnall tightened his grip and turned sideways to protect him
from their father’s wrath, but Connor was too distraught to fear him.

“What’s wrong with her?” Connor usually kept silent in his father’s presence, but he had to know.

“She was unfaithful, and now she’s dead,” his father said, anger vibrating off him. “There will be no weeping for her.”

Grief sucked the air from Connor’s lungs, and it was a long moment before any sound came out. Then he howled, “No!” and clawed
at his brother’s arms. “Let me see her! Let me see her!”

“Praise God I have one son who is a fit heir to lead this great clan,” his father said.

“Connor’s only a bairn, Fa—” Ragnall started to say.

The chieftain cut him off with an abrupt wave of his hand. “Keep her son out of my sight.”

 

Y
e can’t go with Connor,” Duncan told her.

“Who else will set up his household at Trotternish Castle?” Ilysa continued sorting and packing her clothes while her brother,
who was twice her size and all brawny muscle, glowered down at her. “Ach, there will be so much to do.”

“I won’t allow it,” Duncan said, crossing his arms.

Ilysa paused to give her brother a smile because he meant well, though she was not going to let him stop her. “For heaven’s
sake, Duncan, why shouldn’t I go?”

“If you’re keeping his household, everyone will believe that you’re also warming his bed,” Duncan said in a low hiss.

“I’ve been managing his household here at Dunscaith Castle since he became chieftain, and no one thinks that.” It would not
occur to any of them, least of all Connor. Ilysa stifled a sigh and returned to her packing.

“That’s because I live here,” Duncan said. “Ye grew up here. This is your home. Following the chieftain to Trotternish Castle
is a different matter altogether.”

What would she do if she remained here? Now that Duncan had married Connor’s sister and been made keeper of Dunscaith, Ilysa
had lost her place. Though she and Duncan’s new bride were friends, there could be only one mistress of a castle.

“If you’re troubled about this, why don’t ye speak to Connor?” Ilysa asked. “He’s been your best friend since the cradle.”

“I won’t insult my friend and chieftain by suggesting he’d take advantage of my sister!”

“But you’ll insult me?” Ilysa asked, arching an eyebrow—though if Connor MacDonald wanted to take advantage of her, she would
faint from pure happiness.

“I’m no saying anything would actually happen between the two of ye,” Duncan said, raising his hands in exasperation. “But
if the men think ye belong to the chieftain, you’ll never get another husband.”

“I don’t recall saying I wanted one.” Ilysa held up an old cloak to examine it for moth holes. “Should I take an extra cloak?
They say the wind is strong on the north end of the island.”

“Ilysa—” Duncan stopped abruptly.

Years of fighting had made her brother’s instincts sharp and his reflexes quick. Before Ilysa could draw a breath to ask what
was wrong, Duncan had run out into the castle courtyard and pulled his claymore from the scabbard on his back.

Through the open door, Ilysa heard shouting and raced out after him.

“What is it?” Duncan called up to one of the guards on the wall.

“Three riders are galloping hard for the gate,” the man shouted. “One looks injured.”

Please, God, don’t let it be Connor.
He had gone for a last hunt with his cousins before his departure for Trotternish. Usually, Duncan would be with them, but
he had stayed behind to be with his bride. And to lecture Ilysa.

Ilysa followed in Duncan’s wake as he ran through the warriors who were flooding into the courtyard. Through the open gate,
she saw the three horsemen riding hell-bent for the castle. Her stomach dropped when she recognized Connor as the injured
rider, flanked by his two cousins. He was slumped forward, looking as if he was barely holding on. The rest of his guard was
several yards behind them.

As the three riders drew up to the narrow bridge that connected the castle to the main island, Duncan ran across it and blocked
her view. Ilysa wanted to scream in frustration as she alternately rose on her toes and leaned to the side, trying to see.

“Clear the way!” Duncan shouted as he came back across the bridge.

The world fell away as Ilysa saw Connor enter the castle between his cousins, Ian and Alex, who were half carrying him. His
black hair hung over his face, and the front of his tunic was drenched in blood.

“Run and fetch my medicines,” Ilysa told the serving woman next to her before she ran after the others into the keep. As she
entered the hall, she called out to another woman, “Bring blankets from my brother’s bedchamber.”

With one sweep of his arm, Duncan sent cups and platters clattering to the floor, clearing the high table just before Ian
and Alex lifted Connor onto it and laid him down.


O shluagh!
” Ilysa said, calling on the faeries for help, when she saw the arrows sticking out of Connor’s chest and thigh.
How many times will our enemies try to kill him?

When Connor tried to sit up, Duncan held him down with a firm hand.

“I’m no badly hurt,” Connor objected, but his face was gray.

“We rode hard for fear that he’d bleed to death before we reached the castle,” Alex said as he sliced Connor’s tunic open
with his dirk to expose the wound.

“The arrows came from rocks above us,” Ian said. “We were in the middle of an open field where we were easy targets, so we
couldn’t stop to take care of his wounds.”

“We’ll take the arrow out of his chest first, then the one in his leg,” Ilysa said after she examined both wounds. She held
her breath as she rested her fingertips on Connor’s wrist. “’Tis fortunate that ye have the heart of a lion, Connor MacDonald.”

Connor started to laugh, then winced. “Just get the damned things out of me. They hurt like hell.”

“Someone bring us whiskey,” Duncan shouted. “The rest of ye, out!”

When the whiskey arrived, Duncan cradled Connor’s head and poured it down his throat.

Ilysa noticed the blood running down Ian’s arm, but his injury could wait. Connor’s could not. Still, this was not as serious
as that other time, shortly after the four of them had returned from France. She shuddered as she recalled Ian carrying Connor’s
broken body into the seer’s tiny cottage. Connor had been more dead than alive. With God’s help, she and Teàrlag had snatched
him back from death’s door.

“Cutting the arrow out will be a wee bit messy,” Alex said as he wiped his long dirk on his tunic. “I’ll do that, Ilysa, and
ye can do the sewing.”

“I think we’ll need all of ye to hold him down,” Ilysa said, knowing the men would take that better than telling them a delicate
hand was needed with the blade. “If Connor moves, it will make things worse.”

While the men poured more whiskey into Connor, she made a poultice.

“Ready?” Duncan asked Connor. When he nodded, Duncan took the tooth-marked strip of leather from Ilysa’s basket of medicines
and put it between Connor’s teeth.

Ilysa exchanged glances with the others, then took a deep breath and willed her hands not to shake. The arrow was deep, and
it was barbed, so she had to work carefully. Thankfully, Connor passed out long before she finished.

After she cut out the arrow, Ilysa cleaned the wound thoroughly with whiskey and covered it with the poultice. Then she did
the same with the arrow in his thigh. The three men were skilled at dressing battle wounds, so she sat down on the bench next
to the table while they wound strips of linen around Connor’s chest, looping the cloth under his left arm and over his right
shoulder.

Now that it was over, a wave of nausea hit her, and she leaned forward to rest her forehead on the table. She slipped her
hand into Connor’s. When he was so badly injured the last time, she had washed his naked body with cool cloths to break his
fever. Somehow, holding his hand now felt more intimate.

Ach, she was pathetic. She sat up and gazed at his face, which was eased of worry for once. Though his looks were the least
of what drew her to him, a lass would have to be dead not to notice how handsome he was. He had scars all over his body, attesting
to battles and attempts on his life, but his face was unmarked. He was perfect, an Adonis with black hair and silvery blue
eyes.

Since Connor returned from France to find his father and brother dead and their clan near ruin, he had devoted himself with
single-minded determination to restoring the clan’s lands and making their people safe. If he lived long enough, he would
be one of the great chieftains, the kind the bards told stories about. Whatever Ilysa could do to help him, she would.

“Connor will be fine,” Ian said, squeezing her shoulder. “Ye did well.”

“Let me see to that cut on your arm.” Ilysa chastised herself for daydreaming while Ian needed tending and pushed up his bloody
sleeve. “Looks like an arrow grazed ye.”

“’Tis nothing,” Ian said.

Ilysa rolled her eyes and set to work on it. “Connor’s wounds are deep and will bear watching,” she said for her brother’s
benefit. “He’ll need a healer to travel with him to Trotternish.”

“There must be healers in Trotternish,” Duncan said.

“None that we can trust,” she said as she tied the bandage around Ian’s arm. “A healer wouldn’t even have to poison him, though
she could. ’Tis easy to let a wound go bad.”

*  *  *

It should have been a clean kill.

Lachlan mulled over what went wrong as he waited at the meeting point for Hugh’s galley, which would take him back to Trotternish.
He had wasted his first arrow on the wrong man. When the rider entered the clearing, he fit the description Lachlan had been
given: a tall warrior near Lachlan’s age with a rangy build and hair as black as a crow. Fortunately, the man’s horse had
jerked to the side and saved his life. Lachlan was relieved he had only winged him. He did not make a practice of killing
men who did not deserve it.

As soon as the next man charged his horse into the clearing, Lachlan realized his mistake. He could not have said why, for
the two looked much alike, but he had known immediately that the second man was the chieftain. There was something about him
that bespoke his position as leader of the clan.

Odd, how the chieftain had ridden directly into Lachlan’s range when he saw the arrow strike his companion. Connor MacDonald
had not hesitated, not spared a glance behind him to look for someone else to do it.

It was the chieftain’s unexpected willingness to put the life of one of his men before his own that had caused Lachlan to
falter, just for an instant, and send his next arrow into the chieftain’s thigh instead of his heart. Lachlan recovered quickly,
and his third arrow struck the chieftain in the chest, though it may have been too high to kill him.

Next time, he would not falter.

*  *  *

The four men were in deep discussion when Ilysa slipped into the chamber with a tray. She glanced at Connor, who had no business
being out of bed a day after he was wounded. Though he hid his pain well, she saw it in the strain around his eyes.

“We haven’t found the man who shot those arrows,” Ian said. “His tracks were washed out in the rain.”

As Ilysa started around the table refilling their cups, Duncan gave her his icy warrior’s stare to let her know that their
earlier argument was not finished. Ilysa responded with a serene smile to let him know that it was.

“We all know Hugh is responsible for this attack,” Alex said, referring to Connor’s half uncle who was set on taking the chieftainship
from him. “He’s tried to have Connor murdered more than once.”

“The MacLeods wouldn’t attack us here on the Sleat Peninsula where we are strong,” Ian agreed. “This was a single archer,
and my guess is he was one of our own.”

“We have vipers among us!” Duncan slammed his fist on the table, causing their cups to rattle.

As Ilysa refilled their cups, Ian shot her a quick, dazzling smile, and Alex winked at her. She had always been fond of Connor’s
cousins, though the pair had been philandering devils before they settled down to become devoted husbands. Ian and Connor
had gotten their black hair from their mothers, who were sisters, while Alex had the fair hair of the Vikings who had once
terrorized the isles.

“Will ye reconsider your decision to live at Trotternish Castle?” Ian asked Connor. “Up there, ye won’t have us to guard your
back as we did yesterday.”

“Hell,” Alex said. “if someone kills ye, we’re likely to end up with Hugh as chieftain.”

“By making Trotternish Castle my home,” Connor said, “I’m sending a message to the MacLeods—and to the Crown—that I am not
giving up our claim to the Trotternish Peninsula.”

Connor’s deep voice reverberated somewhere low in Ilysa’s belly, making her hand quiver as she poured whiskey into his cup.
For a moment she feared he would notice, but she needn’t have worried.

“I want them to know,” Connor continued, “that we will fight for the lands the MacLeods stole from us.”


A’ phlàigh oirbh, a Chlanna MhicLeòid!
”—a plague on the MacLeods!—the four chanted in unison and raised their cups.

Ilysa could see that she had arrived just in time with more whiskey.

“If you’re intent on this,” Duncan said, “I should remain as captain of your guard and go with ye.”

“I need ye to protect our people here, just as I need Ian and Alex to hold our other castles,” Connor said. “I’m sailing for
Trotternish in the morning, so I suggest we discuss how to remove the MacLeods from our lands.”

Ach, the man should let his wounds heal before leaving. Ilysa would have to watch him closely on the two-day journey.

She took her tray to the side table and stood with her back to them, pretending to be busy. Because they suspected Connor’s
uncle had spies in the castle, Ilysa had always served them herself when Connor’s inner circle met in private. The four men
were so accustomed to her coming and going that they never noticed when she stayed to listen.

“The MacLeods are a powerful clan,” Ian said. “We won’t defeat them without a strong ally fighting at our side.”

“If ye want us to take Trotternish,” Alex said, “ye should make a marriage alliance with another clan.”

Ilysa tensed, though she was certain Connor would say it was not yet time, as he always did.

“Several clans have already left the rebellion, and it will end soon,” Ian said. “’Tis possible now to judge which clans will
have power—and which won’t—when it’s over.”

“Ye always said that’s what ye were waiting for,” Alex said. “Of course, we think ye were just stalling.”

“You’re right,” Connor said. “’Tis time for me to take a wife.”

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