Rays of sunlight battled her sight as soon as she stepped outside. The bright morning seeped into her widened pupils, foreign to the turmoil in her head. Phyllis squeezed her eyes shut, blocked out both the blinding light and the crowd gathering in front of her, alarmed by Ryann's ravenous screaming, and pushed them all back.
When she opened her eyes again, she was only slightly amazed to find their path towards the village gates clear. Marcus still clutched her forearm, but his grip had slackened and he kept repeating Cornelis's name, which pushed her into a frenzy once again.
She snatched herself free to usher an aggressive whistle that alerted Goliath at once, and her unsaddled mare galloped towards them as they continued their way, Storm and Patroclus in their wake.
Marcus's hand clutched her shoulder again when she emitted an angry hiss at the rearranging villagers, and he steered her towards Goliath, giving her a leg up that she didn't need, before turning towards Patroclus and hoisting himself into his own saddle. Cornelis clutched Storm's mane, visibly torn about following them or not. Phyllis felt it would only require a slight push to make him stay back, and she wanted, oh she wanted him to.
But she didn't dare. They couldn't afford any disagreement, there wasn't enough time, and Marcus would argue.
So they rode forward together, leaving the wretched place behind, a determined flick of her wrist forcing the guards to open their escape to freedom. Phyllis's vision was rimmed with darkness, her hearing muted with exhaustion, but not even the dark spots dancing before her eyes could make her miss the soldiers in front of her.
"Fuck," she sighed.
Marcus's expression showed he was just as alarmed as she was, erasing all her lingering hope that he had overdone his backup plan. These Centuriae were not his own.
They needed to go. But her mind was empty. There was just no way. No way she could ever hold them back until they had passed all of them. Too many minds to convince, to lie to, to tell she was something to be feared, when in all honesty she was just very small, and very, very tired. She had no images to conjure, no illusions to feed them.
"I'll talk to them," Cornelis said, and his ridiculously long sword clattered to the ground, only for Marcus to pick it up the next second. He thrusted it back into Cornelis's hand.
"No," Marcus said. "Let me."
"They want their revenge. I'll let them have it. If you want your witch to live, get her out of here," Cornelis retorted. Phyllis agreed wholeheartedly, but Marcus, Marcus had to object.
Cornelis didn't let him: "They won't forsake their goal for a deserted soldier. Not even to hang him."
He was right, and maybe Marcus realized it, because he turned towards her. Always his last resort, and she couldn't possibly blame him, because what good had she ever been to him? Desperation flashed through his eyes, flicking through motions she could not see, until they finally focused on her again. He looked frighteningly determined.
"I can't handle all of them," she declared.
"You don't have to. They won't forsake their goal for me. But they would stand back for their Emperor."
She saw the image in his mind, clear as day, because she had been sitting on his metal-framed shoulders when they had spotted Emperor Augustus, and his appearance had made the crowd stand back. The very first outing they had been allowed on together, during their journey from Rome to Gaul. Marcus's relentless charm had gained her a free pass from her parent's temporary residence in Lugdunum's Castrum, to go watch the annual celebration of the Emperor at the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls. Myra despised the ceremony which was founded on the blood of her ancestors, but she had let Phyllis go when Marcus had joined her plea.*
Maybe it wasn't Marcus who had won her mother over that day. Maybe they had both reminded Myra of home. Maybe her mother had seen her own past and wanted to make a different choice. Maybe she simply hadn't been able to repeat her own mother's dogmas. Whatever thoughts had fuelled her, she had supported their budding friendship. She had allowed them to make joint memories.
The two Centurions in front of them rode forward on their plume-bearing horses. Marcus didn't have time to explain. But she knew what he wanted to do. If he played the part, she could make them see.
Cornelis had mounted Storm at the sight of the soldiers, but Phyllis knew he wouldn't unleash a battle on his village that they couldn't win. He watched Marcus drive Patroclus in front of them, completely bewildered. Marcus looked back at him.
"You can't help them when you're dead," he said, before he gave Phyllis a firm nod and straightened his back to face the Centurions, who would corner him seconds from now, their troops at their heels. His voice had already shifted into the act he was about to pull on them.
Cornelis said something, but Phyllis couldn't decipher his words. She felt Storm's flank brush against her lower leg as he rode closer, and the sensation shifted into that of the cloaks and tunics of the bystanders Marcus passed on his way towards the crowded Sanctum, where they had seen Emperor Augustus drive his own stallion forward, past his troops and past his people. Both soldiers and common folk hadn't needed an incentive to create a path forward for their revered leader.
And they didn't need one now. They shrunk back in stunned recognition, the admiration less joyful than it had been in Lugdunum and filled with fear over being late to recognize their leader. Marcus didn't even resemble the greying emperor that much. He was taller, younger and better trained, but he copied the quiet authority of his idol with a confidence that resonated back to her, and steadied her outstretched hand while she made his image match his actions.
The Centurion's turned their horses, flanking him but giving him ample space, until they had listened to his words and advanced forward to instruct their troops. Phyllis felt a rush of gratitude because she couldn't possibly induce the illusion on 200 separate minds. They acted with the obedience that had been drilled into their minds day after day of ruthless training and cleared the way for them.
Compared to the Emperor's Legions, this was a little batch of soldiers, and none of them were of sufficient rank to address the God Augustus claimed to be. Phyllis focused on this thought, keeping it firm at the front of the Centurions' swarming minds. She didn't face them anymore, and she knew by now she didn't need to, but she had no idea what Marcus would do once they had passed the troops and worry tore through her resolve as they reached the tail of their formation.
She nudged Goliath forward until they were level with Patroclus again, but Marcus kept his head fixed straight ahead, as if he was locked in his own trance. Phyllis realized that her thoughts of the Emperor had faded too much to keep hold of her illusion, and she focused on her wish to keep Marcus from harm instead.
"They will see us," she warned him.
"They have to see us," Marcus said, and his eyes drifted sideward now, brushing over both of them. "Or they will level Abhan searching for us."
"They might very well do that anyway," Cornelis said, but there was no venom behind the statement, only quiet resignation. He took a deep breath and nodded towards the forest ahead of them: "Make them watch us and hold them back for as long as you can."
It was ridiculously hard already.
"And after?" she asked, knowing they were the last words she would be able to voice, since black spots overtook her vision once again.
"After we try to reach the last camp we set up on our way here," Cornelis said.
A full day's ride away. The length of travel needed to gain a safe advance over foot soldiers, if any were sent after them. And they could not continue a journey that would lead them back to Mesmer. But she would have to address that later, if later was a luxury allowed to them. Behind them the troops erupted into chaos, their square formation breaking over the disorientation a fading illusion left and so they had no choice but to spur their horses into speed.
*This little outing takes place in Chapter 6 – Pax Romana of 'Mesmer' (I don't promote 'Mesmer' much, since I haven't finished writing it, but I'll continue to once I have finished writing 'Cornelis.')
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Mesmer series - book two "When war has left scars too deep to heal, can love still blossom upon it's ruins?" When Cornelis meets Phyllis and Marcus, he sees a young Wicca in the grasp of a Roman Optio, and he'll stop at nothing to set her free. Even...