A part of me died that day.
The Battle of Mount Wi was the turning point of the war and the fall of the Southern Plateau tribe. We lost so many loved ones and loyal warriors to the last battle of the Cruel War. The few of my people that were left were taken as prisoners of war to the Northern Kingdom, where they rot in cells and worked as slaves for their empire. I remember that day as horribly as the others.
We had a perfectly planned attack. We were smaller, less armed, less uniform, and quicker to assemble. It started off perfectly according to the plan. When the first team baited the main army into our territory then dispersed into the valley. Our first arrows flew and they were caught off guard, scanning the horizon for us. But we were too hidden, too quick. As the archers shot from the top of the plateau, the warriors charged from their flanks. We had the advantages, finally, and the battle was going our way. Until their reinforcements came.
Maybe their entire army had come to back them up. In their fur coats, pale skin, and light eyes and hair, they had to be burning up in the heat of our red land. But that didn't tire their army. After fighting the whole battle, our people were slowing down. We lost arrows, supplies, medicine, and soldiers. Our army was dwindling while the fresh recruits attacked. It was beyond brutal. They were merciless, slaughtering our people without glory or pity. Our blood stained the red earth that day. And I lost the one I loved.
He was so skilled in battle and yet so friendly to everyone. Anyone could rely on him. He was loyal and loving. His hair was always well-groomed in a bun on top of his head. His eyes were dark and warm like the sky during sunset. He was fearless and full of valor on the battlefield.
I remember leading the charge for the archery line. He led the cavalry on foot. I watched as the Northern man stabbed him in the back with a sword. A tactic considered ruthless and savage by our people. He crumpled to the ground like a rag doll. I jumped off the plateau in shock, plummeting and dragging my feet into the solid orange rock for support. He was bleeding too much when I reached him. The red covered stained my hands and clothes. The man that stabbed him stood over me, sword trained. I grabbed the sword from my friend and defended myself, but I was never strong with a sword. My bow was back on top of the plateau with the archers. We fought until my sword flew out of my hands and I was defenseless. Without our leader, the battle went into chaos. I watched the light leave my friend's eyes. He was named Dakotah, ally and friend because that is what he was. A friend and ally to all, even the northern men if they had given him a chance.
Even so, I await to be wed with the prince of the Northern Kingdom. It was the morning of the eve of my wedding. It was my only chance of survival. When my people were taken to prison camps up north, I was sentenced to death because of my position as leader of the archers. Until the prince pardoned me and offered me marriage as a sign of peace. Begrudgingly, I accepted, hoping to take the sacrifice in order to lessen the burden of my imprisoned people. Perhaps with a southern woman as their new princess, the Northern people would take pity and have empathy for my people. Or maybe I was chasing a fool's dream. Either way, the wedding was inevitable. The ceremony was taking place almost exactly a year after the Battle of Mount Wi. It felt like a slap in the face.
"You look nervous," My fiance whispered as I looked straight ahead, not even looking at him. He wasn't terribly ugly, with sky blue eyes and hair the color of snow. A small blonde mustache and beard were beginning to develop, as facial hair was a sign of royalty up North. Down south, the men would sweat to death with some of the beards I have seen here. Despite what his Kingdom had done, my fiance, Prince Nicholai, had kind eyes and naive intentions. I felt bad for hating him since he did not understand the cruelty of his father and the kingdom he fought for.
I took a deep breath and answered, "No, I am fine."
He frowned and pressed his cold hands to my chin as he often did, "Chin up, darling. All of these people will be gone soon."
It seemed like an odd gesture for affection, but I had grown to tolerate it. The Northern Kingdom had a ceremony for a royal wedding by inviting all of the local lords, kingsmen, and royals. And the marrying couple had to greet and welcome each of them, accepting their congratulations, gifts, and approval of their marriage. I had got some odd stares, cold and evil. Like they did not approve of someone so tan and different looking leading their kingdom. But my fiance only took my hand and waved them off politely, with the grace of a diplomat. The procession had grown mundane until I saw him.
My heart dropped to my stomach. I couldn't breathe just looking at him. I wanted to faint, fall to the ground, and seep out of existence. I had to be hallucinating. I had to.
There was Dakotah, escorting some Northern heiress with long ringlets of golden blonde hair and a dress poofier than fresh snow. His hair was messier and longer now, an ocean of waves atop his head. And a small beard was faint on his tan face. But those were the same warm dark eyes, wilder and worn out. He looked older, more mature, and tired. But it had to be him. No one else looked as uniquely handsome as him. But he was dead. I watched him die with my own eyes.
My eyes never left his. He had a small smile painted across his normally bright face, almost taunting and concealed. People passed me and my fiance by, shaking my hand, but I did not pay them a glance. I was so shocked and speechless.
I snapped out of my trance and finally looked away to meet Prince Nicholai's eyes. His blue eyes gazed at me with worry.
"Are you alright?"
A lord and his wife stood in front of us, watching me with concern. I must have looked seriously disturbed for everyone to stop and look at me like this. I cleared my throat and tried to choke down the sick feeling.
"Yes, my prince," I assured him and the guests in front of us, "Welcome to the Northern Kingdom."
They looked at Prince Nicholai, who gave them a nod to move along, then scurried away. My fiance took my hand and I had to hold his gaze. My heart was beating out of control and I felt too weak to stand straight. That was Dakotah, back from the dead, standing at the arms of a Northern heiress, about to greet me and my new Northern fiance. It was too odd to even imagine in any reality except this one.
"My darling, what is bothering you?"
I shook my head and said nothing. He scanned the room, trying to find the source of my discomfort. I shut my eyes, hoping he wouldn't call Dakotah out. If word got out the leader of the Southern cavalry was at a Northern royal ceremony, there would be a manhunt. And the peace that my arranged marriage brought would be tarnished for good.
"I just feel a bit weak," I said finally, "I need to lie down after this ceremony."
He pouted at me and pushed some hair out of my face, "We can call it off if you truly feel ill. I need a healthy bride for tomorrow."
I shook my head and forced a smile, keeping the quickly approaching ghost friend to my peripheral vision. He was so close now, I could almost hear his voice.
"No, my prince. I will finish this."
He took my hand one last time and agreed. The next couple greeted us and congratulated us. And so on. I felt weaker and my breath became shorter as Dakotah and the blonde one approached. I could hardly stand. It felt as though when we met again, the universe would explode.
How was he alive? How was he even here, in the heart of the Northern Kingdom, greeting the Northern prince? It didn't make any sense.
And then he was right in front of me, dark eyes gleaming with excitement but a slightly amused smile atop his lips. I was shaking like a leaf as he and his escort bowed at my presence. The air around me felt charged electrically, ready to blow up. His escort, the heiress girl, curtsied to my fiance while Dakotah and I sized each other up. He was wearing a Northern formal outfit, with a furry long coat and well-fitted pants and a white dress shirt underneath. It looked odd and out of place on his body. I missed when he wore a training sleeveless shirt and baggy shorts, in the Plateau's warm sun and red rocks. He looked so different and yet so familiar.
"Good morning, my Lady Winona," Dakotah said with a small smirk as if we were first meeting and were trying to charm me. My hand was shaking furiously as he picked it up and planted a kiss on the top of my hand, a gesture of charm and greeting. I swiped my hand away quickly in surprise, my skin tingling like it was just shocked with lightning.
"A gift for such a holy marriage," He handed me a prairie rose and got on one knee. I picked it up with sweaty hands and stared at it like he had handed me a grenade. This delicate pink flower could never withstand the cold up north, he must have brought it from the Plateau. Just the sight of it made me homesick. We stood, eye to eye, trying to read each other's minds. But I could not say anything. My fiance eyed me wearily.
"Is something wrong, my dear lady?"He asked me in a serious tone, eyeing both Dakotah and the heiress. Dakotah only looked at me with fake concern, acting as if he had never known me.
I cleared my throat and offered the heiress and Dakotah my hands to shake, "Nothing, my dear. Thank you for the gift. Welcome to the Northern Kingdom, my esteemed guests. Please enjoy your visit."
And with that, the heiress grabbed Dakotah's arm greedily and took him away. Before they left, Dakotah shot me a wink and I thought my heart stopped. How was he alive? He acknowledged me, thank goodness. I thought I was going insane. It was really him and he was really the Dakotah I knew and loved. Alive and in the same room as me. There were only a few guests left to greet before I excused myself to my quarters. Suddenly my furry pelted dress and crown felt so heavy. The flower was crumbling in my hand. Prince Nicholai called some handmaidens to take me to my quarters where I could calm down.
I stepped out onto my terrace, overlooking most of the Northern Kingdom, covered in a snowy storm. I held the prairie rose close to my heart, hands shaking, and sweating profusely. The entire kingdom would be mine to co-rule, but I was not welcome here. Dakotah's presence reminded me. I sighed as a tear rolled down my cheek, freezing halfway down.
"Queen Winona, huh?"
I spun around and attacked in defense, a response that did not die with the war. In my chokehold was Dakotah, grinning smugly up at me like we had returned from training. I let go and jumped back, shaking like I had touched a ghost. I was shaking and panting, wildly staring at him and pressing up against the wall.
"Miss me?"He winked.
I growled and grabbed him by his fur-coated collar, "I thought you were dead!"
He leaned his head in closer and our noses touched, "And I thought you were imprisoned. Now I see you're to be the queen of the Northern Kingdom."
"Princess, "I corrected, "It's a long story. What are you doing here?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"I've been here since the Battle of Mount Wi, Dakotah. Did you rise from the afterlife or something?"I shouted, "Reincarnate into someone more annoying?"
"Actually, I've been struggling to keep the Southern Plateau tribe alive in the snow mountains north of the Plateaus. And planning an uprising against the Northern Kingdom, when I came to see one of our own snuggling up to the Northern King."
I narrowed my eyes and pressed my elbow up against Dakotah's throat, "You don't know what the imprisoned people have been through. After being forced to march up north, given no water, food, or efficient clothing, being forced to work day and night for no pay, being tortured and waterboarded and sentenced to death for your position in the war, you would accept a marriage proposal from the Northern Prince too."
He disarmed me and pressed my arms against the castle exterior wall. The snow swirled around us and the cool wind whipped at my face like a whip. Our faces were so close, I could smell the sage that Dakotah usually smelled of.
"So you can sit there with the crown of the enemies of your people? While your family sits in the dungeons, working as slaves?"
"I didn't see you trying to free them either."
"That's why I'm here, Winona."
I slumped against the wall, speechless and powerless. He was here to free them? On the night of my wedding? It was too good to be true, but how could we pull it off?
I took a deep breath and narrowed my gaze, "How can I help?"
"Why don't you just get dolled up for your wedding, huh?"He grimaced at me.
"Shut up!"I shouted and charged, pressing him against the terrace so he held onto me as to not fall off. He kept his eyes trained on me, almost testing me.
"So what, you want to rebel with me?"He raised an eyebrow, "You wouldn't rather have the pretty blonde boy?"
I pulled his collar so his face was up against mine, the warmth of his breath on my face, "As long as you wouldn't rather that pretty blonde heiress girl."
He laughed and I reached in to kiss him. With the snow around us, the whipping wind, and the exhilaration of freedom and old friendship, I had finally felt happy for the first time since the Battle of Mount Wi. I bid Dakotah farewell as he stared at me with a speechless, glassy look with moonlight in his eyes. We would disarm and trickwire the Northern Kingdom's defenses tonight, then tomorrow I could cause a distraction while Dakotah freed the imprisoned. It went against everything I had been planning for the past year. Staying silent, being beaten down, only hoping for the mercy of the Northern People. But now, with Dakotah seemingly back from the dead, leading the uprising out of the Plateau Tribe, rising from the ashes. And I knew that I would help save my people or die trying.