Her wrists were bound by coarse rope to her high man's horse which was trotting along at a pace that forced her to jog, her feet stumbling on the rocky desert ground. Overhead the fierce summer sun burned her exposed flesh, her modesty covered only by a thin white slip that had turned translucent from the sweat dripping from her body. Harry did not know where she was heading, but she knew she would be grateful when this horrific journey was over. There had been bad trips in the past, but nothing like this expedition. Although she was forbidden to ask questions, she had timidly asked how long they would be travelling for in the hope that she'd at least be able to pinpoint an end to the hell. Of course, the response had come in the form of a reign of blows to her face, her back and her legs, splitting fresh blisters acquired on the journey. She had known in her heart that she wouldn't get answers, but when the intense heat boiled your blood there was little communication with rationality.
Their party was roughly one hundred strong, many of the men familiar to Harry but there were also many new faces. A lot of the high men were relatives or local lords of her high man, Lord Clearwhite of Jenaco. They came from terrain a world apart from the dead landscape they now traversed; Jenaco and the surrounding lordships were coated with lush grassland thick with fertile soil and vast mazes of forestry. Life buzzed and rang from her homeland. Here life was almost non-existent, present only in the form of vicious-looking bugs and flying parasites that itched and bit at the flesh.
Her high man, Victor, was near the head of the party, clearly one of the most important men of the expedition. He was an intelligent man of middle age with a wealth of experience in tactics, battle and diplomacy. He made a good leader of men and approached situations with hard logic. Nevertheless, Harry still hated him. He was perhaps marginally better than the average high man, but that did not make him good. He still beat her, he still hurt her, he still took her in the night when she was already awash with nightmare.
Harry could not think about those times at night. At first, when she had initially been paired with her high man, she thought that Victor had sexual interests only for his wife of many years, with whom he shared two sons and two daughters. But of late that had certainly not been the case.
That first night, alone in the barn, asleep on the dry hay ridden with bugs and mud. He had found her just by chance, his mind compromised by drink, and he did not even speak. He tore her clothes off like an animal and his hands pressed hers firmly to her sides. Her body sank into the hay and his mass fell on top of her-
Her feet tangled over each other as her left knee smashed into a large jagged boulder, knocking her to the ground. The rope tugged on her wrists and her scrawny body was dragged along the ground by the horse, grating on her like sandpaper. She cried out but Victor did not even look around.
It took her a good few minutes to find her feet again, by which time her clothes had been dyed a pale yellow and were ragged and torn. Moments later, Victor and the party slowed as a small village came into view in the distance.
The outriders returned with tense looks on their faces.
"It is abandoned, as expected," said Brandon, one of the younger outriders with long brown hair that flowed almost to his waist. He was one of the few high men that had provided a mount for his low man, albeit it was a pathetic excuse for a horse.
"What of the resources?" asked Charles, the commander.
"Fully stocked," Jamie, another outrider, reported, "Like they just vanished."
"I want to take a closer look. Also, I fear I am taking ill from this heat. We need rest. There is no reason this village cannot provide us shelter for a few days,"
"Sir, do you think that's wise?" asked Brandon, "After all, there must be a reason the villagers abandoned their homes without taking anything with them."
"Perhaps, but perhaps the reason left with them. Did you see any obvious signs of danger?"
"No, sir," said Jamie, "Not a whisper of life whatsoever, in fact."
"Well then," said the commander, adjusting himself on his mount.
Brandon looked clearly uncomfortable with the decision, but it was not his place to question the orders of the commander. Charles could be brutal with punishment for disobedience.
The party set off once more towards the white-walled houses ahead of them, appearing as dead as the surrounding desert. Harry studied Brandon as she ran, fearing that he had sense where Charles had not. Villages were never just left for no reason. On their travels they had come across two other places stocked up with food and commodities but with no signs of life. Those places had radiated something... dark. That was the only way Harry could explain the feeling she had felt walking through. She remembered the sand under her feet feeling like poison, and the air feeling like ice despite the blaze of sunlight that rained down upon them. She did not wish to enter another place like the last ones, and certainly didn't want to linger there for a few nights.
But what did her viewpoint matter? They were staying there. It was not for her to decide. If something dreadful came upon them, there was nothing she could do about it. She was a low person. No choices, no rights and first in the firing line when death came to call.