When Rosa had attended her first Géolfest, she had been the youngest white mage with the highest voice, so she stood in the front during the mage chant. She had mixed up half of the words, but she was young enough at the time that such failures were considered cute. Now, she was the one standing behind the little ones, singing in their ears so they could remember every sentence correctly. The black mages flanked them, conjuring shows of fire and ice to match the songstory the white mages told.
Kain watched the show intently, smiling at all of the appropriate times, sometimes directly at Rosa. And as always, Cecil was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Rosa could only wonder what those thoughts were. Something that seemed important to him, she was sure, but she had hoped that he could have ended his brooding for the duration of the Géolfest at least.
But she wished that every year, didn't she?
The mage chant came to an end with a fiery starburst to warm the cold night air. The crowd of nobles and peasants alike burst into cheers and foot stomping. Even Kain was stomping his feet as Cecil dragged him away from the distracted Cid, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on them for the king. The mages were hugging each other in congratulations, but she was not the friend of any mage, so it was easy enough for her to slip between the happy clusters to follow after her two soldiers.
Once they'd reached the hall, far enough away from the crowd, she called after them. "You'll miss the punch if you go now."
Kain swung around to face her as soon as he'd heard her voice. Cecil looked angry under the shadow of his helmet, but she didn't care. Not a bit.
"We've been caught!" Kain said, gripping Cecil's arm in mock surprise.
Cecil ignored him. "Are you going to tell Cid?"
"No," she said. "I'm coming with you."
Rosa walked toward them, her eyes fixed resolutely on the last double-doors that separated the castle from the outside world, flung open for the Géolfest.
"Wait, wait," Cecil said, stepping into her path.
She tried to step around him, but he caught her arm. She shot him a look of warning, but he didn't budge.
"You can't come with us," he said.
"It's dangerous," Kain interrupted.
"All the more reason you should have a white mage with you." Rosa twisted away from Cecil's grasp, and he let her go. "We're friends, aren't we?"
"Yes," Kain answered.
Rosa kept her eyes on Cecil until he finally answered, "Yes."
"Then, I'm not going to let you both leave me behind during a holiday. I left my bow behind one of the bushes outside."
As she walked ahead of them, she heard Kain say, "She can use a bow?"
The winter night was cold, but Rosa didn't let herself feel it. She focused her senses on the smell of lit hearths from the village, the sound of snow crunching under their boots... She could hear that Cecil was a few meters to her left, and Kain walked between them, but she kept her eyes focused ahead, into the shadows of the forest.
"When did you learn to use a bow?" Kain asked. His voice seemed loud in the silence.
Rosa shrugged. "I've been practicing."
"I've never heard of a white mage who used a bow before."
"We're not going to catch anything if you keep talking," Cecil growled.
Kain and Rosa exchanged a look, and Kain shrugged and mouthed the word "Holiday."
He was right. It was the holidays. Every time one came around, Cecil became a shadow of himself, and he took Kain out in the forest to hunt monsters. When they came back, they'd give the gold they'd scavenged to charity, and Cid couldn't find it in his heart to do anything but give them a half-hearted lecture.
Cecil clicked his tongue -- a signal -- and they all stopped in their tracks.
"Something up ahead," he whispered, gripping his sword.
Kain looked at Cecil, then Rosa. "Stay back here. We'll take care of it." He saw her protest before she even spoke it and shook his head. "If we need backup or some healing, we'll call you. Just watch our backs for now. It's helpful."
Rosa clenched her jaw as she watched the two soldiers go out ahead. Probably just some imps. Maybe a swordrat. Either way, they could handle it. But that wasn't the point.
"What is the point?" she muttered to herself.
She raised her bow and set the notch of an arrow into the catgut string. Why had she learned to fight? Why had she learned magic? Kain and Cecil were close as brothers, maybe closer. And she was just the third wheel. The annoying tag-along. Half the time, she couldn't even tell whether or not either of them really liked her or if they just put up with her.
They were two of the brightest stars in Baron. Raised by the king, favored by him. The best dark night and the best dragoon anywhere near their age-group. Nothing she could do would prove that she was worthy of their company.
She rolled her eyes at herself and lowered her bow. Self-pity? That certainly wouldn't do anyone any good. When they got back, she would insist that they allow her to join them next time -- not this time. Surprising them might throw them off guard, get one of them hurt. She sighed and rested her back against a tree, watching the path that they'd disappeared down, waiting for them to return as if she were nothing more than a typical maiden.
Something in the darkness caught her eye, not far off of the path. A dim glow. Golden. Round. About the size of a grapefruit. What was it?
She tip-toed toward it, still holding her bow ready. Just in case.
"Rosa!" Kain's voice nearly startled her out of her senses. "You've got to come see the hoard these imps had. I've never seen so much--"
He stopped suddenly, his eyes widening. Cecil was coming up behind him, and Kain held out a hand to stop him. He locked his gaze on Rosa, his expression more serious than she'd ever seen it.
"Back away slowly, Rosa. Don't make any sudden movements."
She blinked at him. "Back away from what?"
Rosa's heart froze. The golden ball. It was an eye.
Her skin prickled with adrenaline and fear. Perhaps she didn't know as much about dragons as Kain did, but she knew that once they'd been seen, the dragon wouldn't simply let them go. They would have to fight it.
With little thought, she raised her bow again and drew back, aiming for the dead center of the dragon's black-slit pupil.
She let the arrow loose, and the winter night shattered with the dragon's scream.
Kain was gone -- in the air and then on the dragon's back with his spear lodged between the creature's shoulder blades. Rosa reached to her quiver to deliver another shot. But Cecil was in front of her. Obstructing her shot.
"Move!" she shouted, but she couldn't even hear her own voice above the Dragon's cries.
It swung its head in a blind rage. First backwards toward Kain, then forward toward Cecil. Its bony skull collided with Cecil's helmet before he could swing his sword, and he fell into the snow.
The dragon was close enough. She took her arrow and jabbed it into its eye, as far as it would go. It couldn't retaliate. It was in too much pain. The massive head wobbled for a moment, then finally, the dragon slumped to the ground.
For a moment, it felt as if time had stopped. As if the impossibility of the situation had ended any forward movement.
And then Kain cried out a cheer of victory, and the moment ended. Rosa looked up at him, smiling even though her entire body was shaking with shock and cold. A dragon that close to Baron... Probably drawn out by the scent of hearthfire or the imp's treasure. It may have gone to the village and had a feast that night if they hadn't--
Cecil. Cecil was hurt.
Rosa ran to him and knelt next to his unconscious body. Carefully, she pulled his helmet off to see how much damage had been done. Not bad. A slash by his temple, probably a few bruises. She rested her hand on his white hair, stained red-brown with blood, and closed her eyes. Visualizing the wound, she pulled on the invisible strings of magic that floated around them, letting their power flow through her body, through her fingers, into the wound. She whispered a prayer to the Great Mother, and the magic crackled around both of them like flint sparks.
When she opened her eyes, she found Cecil looking back at her. Relief washed over her, and she flung her arms around him, pulling him up out of the snow so she could hold him. So she could know he was okay.
"Guess Rosa wasn't the one we should've been worried about," Kain said. He was standing over them now, and he gave Cecil's leg a little kick -- perhaps a bit harder than a purely friendly kick would be. "We've got to get some people out here to help us haul this thing into town. Not the biggest one I've seen, but it'll make for some nice armor. Minimal damage to the skin thanks to our white mage."
Cecil made a muffled sound, and Rosa loosened her hold on him so that she could look at his face. She was surprised to find him smiling. Finally smiling.
"Thanks," he said sheepishly.
"You need to take it easy for a few days," she said. "You were concussed, and if you exert yourself too much--"
"Are you at least going to let me stand up?"
Rosa frowned and cuffed him on the shoulder. "You're hopeless, Cecil Harvey. I don't know why I bother." She stood, straightening her robes. "With either of you."
"Because you love us," Kain said, grinning as he helped Cecil to his feet. "And you'd feel awfully bad if that dragon had eaten us."
"Don't be so sure about that."
"How can we be anything but sure?" Cecil asked, his voice suddenly solemn. He took her hand. "Thank you, milady. You likely saved my life tonight." He leaned down and placed a kiss on her knuckles, his long hair brushing against the back of her hand, making her skin flush.
When he stood straight again, his expression was almost playful. Had that been another joke?
"Come on," he said, walking past her. "Let's see if we can get some people away from the Géolfest long enough to help us with our little matter of a dragon and some gold."
Kain nodded to Rosa, his mouth clenched in a tight smile. "You heard the man."
"I don't know what I heard," she whispered.
Rosa picked up Cecil's discarded helmet and followed her two soldiers back into Baron, knowing that she'd follow them both all the way to the moon if that was what it took to make sure they came home again.