With his horse reshod, Hamish rode at a leisurely pace up the long hill past the village towards Glenbovan. Good food, plentiful wine and a soft mattress had woken him in a hearty mood.
“Now we know about at least some of the men I’ll be facing when we get there, all assuming the blacksmith’s tales were true last night.”
“You don’t even want to win the lass, so why do you care?” Angus scowled. He couldn’t drink as much as Hamish and keep a clear head, but few men could. Something Hamish regularly used to his advantage when trying to extract information.
“I might not care about winning the woman, but I don’t want to lose the contest!”
As Hamish passed Angus an oatcake, a particular woman slipped into his mind.
“It’s a pity we didn’t see the blacksmith’s lass before we left. I’d have liked a look at her in the daylight. That old miser should spend more on lamp grease. He charged me enough for his work.”
“Dour-faced little piece,” Angus said dismissively. “I don’t know why you wanted to see her again, other than to be glared at in sunlight.”
Hamish wished she had not spent the evening skulking in the corner. Annis Gowen had turned from welcoming to confusingly hostile, and Hamish was at a loss as to how he had offended her. Hamish’s only impression was of a pair of intelligent eyes of some pale colour and a tumbling mass of chestnut hair, and it plagued him not to confirm whether or not she was pretty.
“I reckon I could have coaxed a smile out of her, given time,” Hamish replied. “Maybe more.”
Discovering the cause of her sudden change felt like a challenge more interesting than the upcoming games. A kiss would have been nice, but it would have probably taken longer than one evening to prune her prickles. Ah, well, a man could not have everything.
He spurred his horse up the hill, but had to draw sharply on the reins to avoid colliding with a figure just over the brow. A man was bent double, catching his breath from the long walk up the hill.
“Move off the road,” Hamish bellowed in warning. He turned the horse’s head sharply as the man threw himself to one side with a high-pitched cry, dropping a bag and wooden stave on the ground.
“Watch out yourself!” yelled the man, more of a youth from the pitch of his voice.
Hamish and Angus cantered past, and by the time they had turned round in their saddles the youth had righted himself. He was standing upright straightening his moss-green brat and looking towards Hamish and Angus.
“My apologies,” Hamish shouted. Seeing the bulky bag the lad was carrying, he added by way of apology, “Can I offer you a ride? My horse can carry two.”
The youth stiffened. He pulled his cap down low over his brow. “If you ride like that I’ll break my neck before we get there! I’ll make my own way, thank you.”
“As you wish,” Hamish said. He snapped the reins and galloped away with a nagging feeling that he had just missed something significant in what the lad said, but unable to put his finger on it.
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