It had been a fitful night. Maciste was starving, not eaten anything since the mouldy bread thrown at him before leaving that morning. Had only snatched some piss when these guards had had their laugh with him.
He’d spent a day on the cross. And another day with little or no rest on the journey here. He needed to sleep .. like hell. His body had to recover. To fight another day.
But they’d left him tied upright against a post. Regularly throughout the night he’d come-to .. the cramps in his empty belly arousing him. The twinges from having his arms raised above his head. Exhausted, no rest, no sleep. First night under Kheir’s thumb. Denied rest, left sleeping upright, tied to this stake. Welcoming the prince to the gates of hell.
With first light it felt that he’d had no rest at all. And he anticipated a day of “never-ending punishment”. In the night his nerves had been jittery .. craving sleep .. desperate to make his body rest .. fearful about the meeting demands of the coming day. But as daylight broke .. he was still dog-tired .. bones aching .. his legs trembling with exhaustion. Nothing for it. A long restless night at the stake had taught him a thing. An endless journey to dawn had determined Maciste’s next moves.
He was Kheir’s marked man. They’d all be on his back .. every minute breathing down his neck. Kheir’s orders had given them free rein .. inviting their worst sadistic bent. He’d go with it, come-what-may .. come-what-they-threw-at-him. Till they got bored. Till his failure to fight back and curse was no longer any fun. Till they looked the other way. THEN he’d be ready to strike.
And yes, fuck it. He’d cope. He was strong, he was determined. Come what may, he’d survive. Fuck that evil stepmother. That bitch-queen did not want him dead. She wanted him to suffer. He’d suffer .. and if that did not kill him, it would make him all the stronger. And Kheir, that mean-minded wimp? He wanted Maciste whole so he himself could break his bones on the rack. Watch as his flesh was cruelly subjected to Kheir’s brand. Well, fuck him. Fuck them all! Maciste would survive, he’d come through. When the time was right, he’d hit back. He’d show these morons what they were dealing with.
It was only thick gruel .. but it filled a hole. The grain they had brought on the cart ground up and water added. But Maciste wolfed it down. Tasted like the cook had pissed in it. Probably spat in it a good few times. Maciste didn’t give a shit. It was plugging a gaping hole.
They were herded up, about forty haggard men in an dishevelled crowd .. whips cracking moving the work-slaves out of the stockade. The sun was up, the forthcoming breath-robbing heat was already announcing itself. In the last minute, still desperately hungry Maciste had grabbed a piece of flat-bread out of another guy’s hand. The man’s leathery face looked furious. He himself was muscular, honed by punishing hard work. But Maciste was taller, broader. And the man must have seen the look of a the ravenous wild beast in his eyes.
“Fuck you,” he snarled.
Maciste was prepared to fight him for it. But the sucker backed down. Maciste wolfed down his rations. He reckoned this was the lay of the land here. Dog-eat-dog. Survival of the strongest. And Maciste had needed that bread. To keep himself strong for the day.
Endless hours swinging a heavy hammer. Mercilessly smashing at a huge granite boulder that did not want to break. For no purpose .. except the hurt. With every hit, the reverberations sending shuddering pains up his arms. Dozens of times .. like thunderbolts the shocks cramped in his shoulders. Hundreds of times .. even his broad muscular his back in no time screamed out with the pain. And pitilessly the sun rose above Maciste’s head. Heartless the sun’s rays burned at his bare skin. The heat frying away at his brain. And the ever-present crack of the guard’s whip. Keeping them at it .. no rest, not a moment’s reprieve. Earning their gruel. Paying back for the scraps of stale bread.
Mid-morning he was given a break. Handing over that massive heavy hammer to another near-naked slave. Led to a sledge .. the box laden with rocks. Made to haul it the length of the quarry. Ordered to drag it back again. The job had no purpose, it was just a routine. A mindless punishing routine. The sledge had no wheels, the runners caught in the sandy grit. The coarse leather strap around his waist dug in with every meaningless step. Up and down the quarry. Doing nothing worthwhile. Achieving nothing useful. Just wearing him down. Purposefully working him into the ground. To be broken by exhaustion. Worked till he broke. Weakened in the heartless heat.
No one could work in the heat of the day, though. Even a place this merciless had a heart. Each slave was packed off with a flask of water. Each had worked out a hole to crawl into .. crept under the overhang of a boulder and stayed out of the pitiless sun.
Not for Maciste. He was delivered to a pair of stakes. Long leather straps hung down from each top, looped around his wrists, pulled tight, stretching his arms out to the top of the poles. At the base the leather straps were fastened to his ankles .. splaying his legs wide apart. No one had to work in this heat, that would be heartless. But Maciste was left strung out .. left to fry. Orders of the king.
Maciste breathed in deep, calming himself. Preparing himself for being left to roast. Sure in time his body would falter .. he’d pass out from the heat. He’d be left to deal with the sunburn after.
Just one final farewell gesture from his minders. Thin cord was looped around his ballsack. Roughly handled, groped in-between his wide-spread legs. A heavy net of rocks was left dangling off his nuts. Orders of the king.
The quarry must pass east-to-west, he realised. There was not one moment when the sun did not burn everything alive there that moved. Or even a motionless man strung out .. barely able to breathe. Pain dragging down on him. Drained of strength. Breaking his princely will. Orders of the king.