Annis span her wool and listened to the three men talking. Hamish had an easy, open manner and a hearty laugh. He was generous as he poured the wine, and as Annis’ father drank more, his tongue loosened. Soon Hamish was in possession of knowledge about every local man he might encounter at the games.
“If I was younger I’d try for Fiona MacNeish,” Annis’ father said. “Pretty, dainty thing. Is that what you like?”
“I’ve not seen her and I wouldnae say I limit myself.” Hamish shrugged. “But I need a wife and one with a good dowry is my favourite sort of woman.”
Need, not want. A curious way of putting it. Annis drew her chair a little farther back, furious as she listened to their jokes about marrying a woman they had never met and had no intention of loving.
“I don’t care if I win the lass, though it would please my father,” Hamish said. “All I want is to defeat Malcolm McCrieff if he tries for her.”
The spindle slipped from Annis’ hand, the wool spooling out across the floor. The men turned as she knelt between them to gather it up, flame-cheeked. Hamish dropped to her side and gathered the tangled yarn, holding it out with a smile.
Annis’ inclination was to return it but reminded herself that a charming smile had been the beginning of all her troubles. Hamish Lochmore was handsome, but from his talk, he was as inconstant as all men. She pressed her lips together into a hard line and snatched the spindle from his hands.
“I’ll leave you to your wine,” she snapped.
Hamish looked puzzled but made no comment. She left the room hastily and went to bed. To hear the name she had sworn never to speak, mentioned with clear animosity, had shaken her.
She had given up hope of Malcolm McCrieff passing by the smithy again, but now she knew where he would be. A plan began to form in her mind, so daring she could scarce believe she had the wit or courage to carry it out, and she lay trembling.
Her mother was five years dead and her brother, John, a recent victim of the feud between the MacNeish and McNab clans. Her father despised her. She had nothing to keep her here any longer.
By the time the house was silent Annis had made her decision and crept through the house, gathering what she needed. She would be long gone before her father discovered what she had taken. On the pallet beneath the window, Hamish Lochmore rolled over but did not wake. Annis smiled at him now, grateful he had given her the idea.
Her hair was the biggest wrench. Waist length, thick and shining. Holding her breath, she sawed hanks of it off with her knife and flung the locks into the fire, where the embers ate it.
Stepping out into the dawn, Annis became John and left home forever.
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