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The Highlander

In memory of the fallen of Culloden, 16th April 1746

For those who have never experienced true cold, the kind that gnaws into your bones and raises the hair on your neck, let me tell you: true cold is white. Your skin bleaches, feeling rubbery, barely part of you any more. Your body bursts into spontaneous shivers, but scarier still are the moments of stillness, only allowing your body to get colder. I huddled deeper into my anorak as I assessed the white plain: beautiful, but deadly. Too cold for the time of year.

The snow was white, the cold was white, the day was white. The nights, lit only by a tiny sliver of a moon, were somehow whiter still.

That was why I didn't see him at first.

His skin was pale, almost transparent, so that at first I could not tell whether the lines across his forehead were his frown or the spidery, naked trees that stood behind him. His eyes, hollow and haunted, seemed to be begging me, pleading me to help him.

"Sir?" I approached him nervously, and noticed a familiar shudder pass through his body. He was as cold as I was. "Can I help you, sir?"

He raised his eyes to meet mine, and I took an involuntary step back. "Defeated," he whispered, sadly.

"Defeated?" My voice was high, thin with fear. "What do you mean, defeated?"

"In battle," the man said succinctly, his Highland accent bleeding into his words, "Defeated."

"Defeated in battle? I don't understand," I protested. "There hasn't been a battle in the UK for nearly..."

"Three hundred years." His voice rang clearer than day across the empty field. "Every year for nearly three hundred years, I have come here. Each time, in vain. Defeated."

My heart stuttered, and I licked my dry lips nervously. "What - year?"

He looked at me in surprise. "Why, seventeen forty-six of course!"

"Seventeen forty-six." My history was appalling. "Uh, the Battle of Naseby?"

He stared at me now, as though I were an idiot. "Naseby? Why, that was over a hundred years ago! My great-grandfather fought at Naseby, for the king, of course. And tonight, I shall fight for my king. Prince Charlie."

"What happened?" I asked quickly. Too quickly, but he seemed too lost in his own thoughts to notice.

"What else?" he sighed dreamily, "Defeated."

Such sorrow in a single word I did not know was possible. A great heaviness fell upon my heart and tears sprung inexplicably to my eyes. "I'm sorry," I tried to say, but the words stuck at the lump in my throat.

He nodded slowly. "Aye, defeated. But he'll come back."

"Who?"

"His Highness, Prince Charlie. Not today, and probably not tomorrow. But one day, I believe it. That is why I return here, to Culloden, each year. One day we will win, and I will rejoice that I was there to see it. But each year we are defeated, and I must watch as my friends are hunted down and killed like dogs." His face, drawn with horror, turned away.

I felt sick. "How many?"

"In battle? Maybe two thousand. But afterwards our families and children were hunted, and we - forgive me. I would not normally horrify a lass in such a way, but their men spared neither our lassies nor our children."

"My God." The shivers were of fear, now, not cold, as the Highlander came towards me and extended his hand. "My God."

"Aye," he whispered sadly, "Defeated."

His hand almost brushed my cheek, but I had jumped back from his touch. With a slow smile, he turned and faded into the landscape, white as a bride. The wind howled and echoed his sad, tired word in my ears.

Defeated.
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