The sand was hot underneath her feet as she walked, her steps as unsteady as everyone else's. The burning sand underneath her feet was slippery, like water as they were forced forward. She couldn't even say that they were walking in a straight line anymore, the journey was lost on her as they all walked together.
Another person collapsed, almost bringing down the woman he was chained to. The crack of whips traveled through the air, and his body was dragged along with the rest of the new slaves. The guards didn't move off of their horses, letting them carry the weight of their dead companion.
Vera stared blankly ahead, eyes only taking in enough detail to keep her feet moving forward. At one point, the sand would have felt soft, but now her feet were so rough and calloused that she couldn't feel the texture anymore. Right foot, left foot, again and again. She ignored the added weight that came with another body falling. She was in the middle of the group of slaves, only able to feel the hot breath of the man behind her on the back of her neck and the sun on her shoulders.
They didn't have to be told twice. Some of them fell to their knees in relief at the break, most would have cried if they had spare tears. Vera remained standing, curly black hair shaking as she tossed her head back to the sun. She felt no different doing that then when she would face the ground. Nothing brought relief.
A guard finally dismounted from his horse; his breastplate reflected the light and shone in her eyes . She hardly ever saw the sandals of the guards touch the ground while she had been chained up. She was fascinated with the way his skirt moved against his legs, the motion capturing her attention more than the sand beneath her feet ever had.
He moved, cutting away the bonds keeping the dead slaves tethered to the rest. Vera continued to watch the slight swish of the skirt as he walked, not even bothering to glance at her despite how she was almost eye level with him. The guards never looked at them though. It was degrading to look down at slaves, wasn't it?
She was pushed forward, propelled into the person before her when the person behind her collapsed. Vera landed hard with her elbow digging into the back of whoever she landed on. The guard stalked forward, grabbing her by her hair and forcing her back on the sand, cutting away the other person from her.
"We're losing too many this way. I told you traveling through the desert was not a good idea." The leader propelled his horse forward, staring down at the mess of slaves that had started out much stronger than they were now. The man took better care of his horse than the slaves he was transporting.
"It's the quickest way to Rome." The guard behind Vera didn't even look at him, but he did haul her to her feet when she was lagging.
"If we lose half the batch before we get there, we won't make a profit." The leader rolled his eyes. "Look at that one, dead on her feet. She won't be any good when we get there."
He gestured at Vera, the movement rough and accusing. If she wasn't so dead to the world, she would have been offended that he seemed to think it was her fault she was so exhausted. Everyone else was ignoring them, glad the leader wasn't singling them out for them.
"What do you suggest then? We're still a day's walk away from the sea to get a boat. The quicker we get there, the better." The one pulled away from Vera, and she finally fell to her knees in exhaustion. She hadn't realized how much she was leaning on the guard holding her up until he let her go.
"Ask the slave, then? What do you suggest, girl? What would be the best way to make sure you won't die." The leader's tone was taunting, making other guards chuckle and dismiss her on sight. She pressed her cheek against the golden sand, her own skin contrasting so well with it.
"Water." She croaked out, making the guards laugh even more. It sounded like she was begging, and she had to blink her dry eyes to get the sand out. "Oh, hear how she begs. Well, we don't have any water to spare." The leader laughed, and Vera was starting to remember more about him than she cared to know. She was sure his name was Maevius.
"Rest. Wa-water and rest." Vera choked out, almost inhaling the sand. She got some strange looks, but then they were silent, and she realized they still expected her to keep talking.
"Best way. Rest, water. Travel slower." Vera's voice was almost nonexistent at the end, a small little croak that made her last word unheard. She received stares from the guards, some peeved that she had the audacity to ask for so much. She didn't feel as though she was asking for the world, but it seemed like she was with how the glared at her.
They paused though, looking down at her and no one saying anything at all. Then Maevius started laughing, a hearty sound that made him double over on his horse. The other men awkwardly joined in on the laughter a moment later. They weren't sure why they were laughing, but they wouldn't sit silently while their leader laughed.
"See, she gets the right idea. We won't even make it to the sea before night falls." Naevius laughed again before getting off his horse. "There's no point in having them drop like flies when they pay us by the head."
The rest of the slaves around her collapsed, all in a huge heap with Vera still in the center. The guard who had once been near her walked away, irritated that she got her way and they wouldn't keep traveling. As she didn't have the next step to focus on, she could feel the heat of the sun burning into her skin and the sand grinding against her skin.
"Thank you." It was whispered silently amongst the slaves, washing over her like a wave that was almost better than a cool breeze. The guards could have killed her when she spoke out, but instead they lived and her suggestion was taken. For the first time since the rope went around her wrists, Vera let herself relax.
The Red Sea was more beautiful than anything she had ever seen before. Nothing compared to the brightness that came with the sun setting over the Red Sea. The yellow sun seemed to hit the water at just the right angle to make the water shimmer as though the stars were there.
"I can't do this, I can't,I can't, I can't, I can't..." The woman next to Vera muttered, clutching to her arm. The hot touch of the other wasn't welcomed, but Vera didn't push her away. The woman was old enough to be her mother, Vera didn't have the heart to be cruel when they only had each other.
"You must. They will show no mercy." Vera whispered back. The other slaves were restless near her, each of them wondering different things. They had to cross the Red Sea, but none of them were certain of what waited for them across the shore.
"Ask where we're going." Another voice whispered behind her.
Ever since she had talked to Maevius and came out alive, they had looked to her to ask what was going to happen to them. Vera had already pushed her luck, she didn't want to talk to him again and find out his patience had run thin with her.
"That's a good way to end up dead. This is the Red Sea, it will either lead to Egypt or it will lead to Rome." The two more popular places for slaves. Vera pushed back the thoughts of rumors she had heard of the slaves of Egypt who were crushed between buildings; of slaves in Rome who were fed to lions.
Before anyone could speak further, even in hushed whispers that the guards couldn't hear, they were interrupted and being examined. Vera held still, not sure what was happening but not about to ask. She simply kept her gaze on the ground and did her best to stay safe.
"Must make sure that you're fit for sailing, don't we?" One of the guards took her chin in his hands, turning her head from side to side and fingers traveling obscenely over her lips. Vera bit on her tongue so she wouldn't bite his fingers off.
"You're just a sight, they're going to love you, you'll be our best seller." He pulled back to go and examine the woman next to her, his fingers just as wandering on her as they was with Vera.
She stared at the sea that made the stars seem dull in comparison. She had always wanted to see the ocean when she was little, but now staring ahead at it, it wasn't what she had imagined. It was just as beautiful as she had always hoped, but there was something missing, someone missing.
She glanced to her left, for a moment her vision blurry enough to trick her eyes into thinking they say her mother standing next to her, back hunched with age and wrinkles around her eyes. Her mother had been a kind woman who had been taken from the world much too young, much too young for Vera's taste. Any time would have been too early for the loss of a mother though.
"When I was younger, I told my mom it was my dream to see the ocean." She mumbled, more to herself than to the woman who wasn't her mother. Vera blinked through her tears, wishing her vision would blurry enough for the woman to look like her mother once more.
"That's a nice dream." The ropes changed into chains. It floated near them, only a couple feet away in the water.
"I wish I knew how to swim." Vera whispered. "I wish my mom was here."
The guards grabbed them, hauling them on the ship one by one, and Vera realized that even weak and without weapons, they still outnumbered the guards enough to cause a riot. She glanced around at her fellow slaves, seeing the fatigue in their bones and the bags underneath their eyes, and she realized that they wouldn't be able to make it.
They were shoved on the ship, below deck before any could think about staying on board, and the guards already on deck prepping the ship. Vera glanced around, seeing everyone pressed so close together on the small ship that there wasn't an option for turning on their sides or relaxing. It was packed, it was hot, it was almost as bad as being forced to walk through the desert. They were all silent, and Vera slowly moved to rest her head on the woman next to her, pretending that the comfort she was getting was from her mother, and not from a stranger that she didn't know the name of.
The rocking of the ship tried to lull her into sleep, but she refused, staying awake to stare up at the rotting wood of the deck. The past was the past, but that didn't make the present any easier.