From brutality to savagery took only a few moments. The cart heavy laden with grain – hauled by a team of exhausted slaves .. carrying the king’s special guest – was steered by whip wielding slave-masters into a compound between mudbrick huts.
Ominously either side of the line of yoked fresh slaves were two burning braziers, irons sticking out, ready to get on with the job.
A pair of brutish slavemasters clambered aboard Maciste’s cart and cut him free. With a hard shove on his shoulder they pushed him off the cart. Ordinarily Maciste would have nimbly leapt back down to the earth. Landing athletically on his feet.
But he was exhausted. He tripped. Disturbingly .. a mark of the heaviness in his legs .. his foot caught on a sack of grain. Falling head first off the cart. Instinct twisted him in mid-air. Landing with a hard thud on his side. The wind driven out of his chest with the surprise.
“Move your stinking arse.”
Still down in the dirt, a kick slammed into Maciste’s back. Still half stunned by his sudden weakness.
A foot slammed itself up his backside. Hard, bringing a grunt to his throat. The guards couldn’t be bothered to wait. Each grabbed Maciste up by an arm and dragged him like a sack of grain, his bare feet dragging in the grit behind.
“You listening now, fuckwit?”
They’d dumped Maciste on his front at the foot of a stake. A boot stomped down on his back.
“Move your arse. UP!”
Maciste was incensed. Getting hauled around like this. His hands clenched in anger. He’d given them no cause to go for him. Now, though, his fists were battle-tight. His hands were tied together. Instinctively every fibre in his body was going to defend himself .. on the attack. Bound but still he could throw a good two handed punch.
He’d got himself halfway up. Suddenly a hand twisted in his hair, his head was yanked upright. His skull crashed against the stake. In the same instant a club smacked him across his side. Normally he would have been prepared, his reactions react faster. But hourly he’d been weakened, his responses worryingly slow. The surprise took his breath away, the blow to his skull had him reeling. Before he knew it, he was up against a pole, his hands were tied above his head. Pinned with his back to the stake. Defenceless.
“You raise your fist to me again, arsehole .. you’ll get more of this.”
The guard drive the club, end first, into Maciste’s lower belly. In the last moment as best he could he’d tensed .. but too slow to fend off the damage. Pain collapsed him together. The club struck in deep .. driving all the air form him. Coughing, badly winded. Realising he was reacting alarmingly slow. Shockingly too late.
Once they had him tied to the stake, the guards wasted no more time with this one, the king’s prize prick was secure, his royal arsehole wasn’t running off. Left at the post, Maciste’ senses were beginning to recover from the blow to his guts, then loud screaming started filling his ears. From that team of exhausted slaves that had been worked into the ground hauling the cart all day. They were being branded. Still stood in their yokes, five pairs lined up behind each other. Trapped. A guard walked either side of the rows. Stuck a red-hot iron into the nearest shoulder and pressed down hard. Branded as Kheir’s slaves.
The slaves on the journey hadn’t been too kind to Maciste. They hadn’t shared their water with him when they’d stopped for a break. He’d had to beg a guard. Then a slave had been ordered onto the cart. Unwilling he’d held the jug towards Maciste’s lips but he’d resented every drop. And he whipped it away again before Maciste had got enough. When Maciste cursed, water trickling wasteful down his front, the slave growled back.
“Go fuck yourself. Prince.”
They hadn’t shown Maciste any human kindness. But Maciste wouldn’t have wished on them the cruel way the savage guards went about their business. Branding them and getting off on their cries. The men could barely move, no chance of squirming away. The brand held screamingly long, burning with gusto into human flesh. The guards laughing into their cries. Singeing savagely tired male muscle. Maciste winced. He saw one slave’s legs fold under him, broken by mind-blistering pain. But the yoke cruelly kept him upright, no escape. Encouraged by his cries, the guard kept the iron forced into muscle even longer. The poor slave was still shrieking – even as he passed out.
Savages. Demons. An object lesson to Maciste. The cart had brought him to Kheir’s gates of hell. He couldn’t see the marks from the men’s fresh brands clearly from this distance. But everything pointed to it being the mark of Kheir’s family clan. Maciste winced. The idea of bearing his stepbrother’s mark burnt into his flesh for the rest of his days …. the thought made him sick. The idea filled him with rage.
The freshly branded slaves had been released. Now with seared flesh they were being made to unload the heavy sacks of grain. Hoisting them up onto scarred shoulders. Crying out as they raised their arms with their heavy load. Gasping as pain scraped its vicious claws through freshly scorched wounds.
The idea he’d carry Kheir’s brand on his flesh the rest of his life .. the thought was stomach-turning. Maciste branded! With his hated brother’s mark. Owned. A chattel. Owned by his treacherous stepbrother. His living flesh claimed by that scheming bitch queen. Kheir’s mother .. this was her plan .. for Maciste to spend the rest of his life as her chattel. She had sent him to the gates of hell. To be worked to the bone. Worked to death. To suffer with every breath he snatched. Branded with Kheir’s mark in his flesh.
The idea made Maciste’s blood boil. But when they came over to him, smirking at his fury .. taunting him with Kheir’s branding iron .. what the hell was he going to do?