At dusk Annis walked into the square with her stave raised and a determined look in her eye. Hamish wondered if he was the only person who noticed how she trembled. Malcolm McCrieff was almost twice as wide as her and was bare to the waist. Annis had removed her brat and wore a thickly padded jerkin over her leine. Her breasts were tightly squashed, and anyone who did not know she was a woman would not suspect. She looked like a slight young man who was about to get ground to oatmeal.
Fear swam in Hamish’s blood. He should prevent the bout and put an end to the madness, but to do so would mean exposing Annis’ identity. He stood poised to intervene when necessary.
The herald beat a drum and the two opponents stepped forward. To Hamish’s surprise, Annis won the first strike, skipping nimbly to the side and catching Malcolm on the thigh with the butt of her stave. Her knee was still swollen and moving must hurt. Hamish was torn between exasperation that she was putting herself at such risk and admiration for her determination.
Her victory was short-lived as Malcolm’s return blow caught her across the buttocks. She yelped in pain, which drew laughter from the crowd and made Hamish jerk forward in anger. Malcolm knew who she was and attacked her anyway.
Annis struck a handful more blows, but it was like a midge plaguing a bull. Malcolm was toying with her, and when he grew bored he felled her with a sideswipe to the thigh and another across her shoulders. A final blow across the knee sent her sprawling to the ground. The bout should have ended then, but Malcolm dealt her another blow and would most likely have continued if Hamish hadn’t broken through the rope with a roar.
“Ye’ve won.” He lowered his voice. “Leave her alive!”
“Her? So you know? I might have guessed a Lochmore would be involved,” Malcolm growled.
“I should know a McCrieff would be cowardly enough to strike a woman.”
They squared up to each other. The herald beat his drum and with reluctance, Hamish backed down.
“I’ll fight ye tomorrow,” Hamish spat.
Malcolm raised his stave amid cheers and left. Hamish waited until the crowd dispersed, then scooped Annis up. Remembering not to carry her as he would a woman, he slung her over his shoulder with her head and arms dangling behind him. Ignoring the way his heart raced to have her in his arms, he carried her to a secluded spot by the loch and lowered her gently onto the heather.
“Let’s clean you up.”
Her eyes were swimming with pain, but as he loosened the leather jerkin they filled with desire and it took all Hamish’s self-control not to kiss her.
“Stay here,” he commanded, as if she were capable of doing otherwise. He walked to the loch and soaked the end of his brat, thinking that all the water in the loch wasn’t enough to cool the heat that coursed through him.
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