Hands roughly grabbed at him. A pair of soldiers had him by the arms, dragged him up and hauled him back towards the Stone. Dropped his backside to the earth and shoving his upper body back. Maciste cried out.
Everything hurt. Every tortured muscle screamed as his feet were dragged. His back cracked back against the Stone when the guards dropped him, he hissed out again. Hands had to stop his exhausted body from slumping sideways and falling back to the earth.
“Stay there, scumbag.”
Hands roughly pressed his back against the warm Stone. Keeping him sitting upright.
“You heard. Get that down ya. Ya’s got work to do.”
The guards dumped the flagon of water alongside the prisoner. And the flat bread dropped in the grit. To build up his strength.
He was free. He was free of restraints. Only a pair of guards looking over him. His eyes saw the opportunity, escape. But where was the strength for that? For fighting the soldiers back? For a long time Maciste could not move. He could barely even reach for the jug of water by his side. For an exhausted time his eyes greedily focussed on that most precious thing in the world. But nothing could move. Not for a long time.
He nearly made himself sick. It had taken a supreme effort to raise the flagon to his mouth. The weight of it almost too much for his manly strength. And then he could not stop himself. Saved by a guard who grabbed it out of his hand. With a kick to Maciste’s leg he snarled at the prisoner to slow down.
Had he dreamed it? His thoughts had come clear with the water? Had Tiradates come visiting? Maciste suddenly remembered the women. Taking that as a good sign of his recovery. He was able to think, he was remembering. He looked over. Their tents gone. His eyes scanned the compound. No women around. No sound of children crying. Gone, the women and children had gone? His move HAD rescued them.
Then his thoughts cleared. Yes, Tiradates HAD come, no dream, no illusion. Then Maciste’s bitterness hardened. Tiradates had come to mock. And with him Tiradates had brought the women. To see their captive “prince”. Had them dragged to the Stone .. to say a fond farewell. Had them marched under snarling guard around the Stone. Hailing their warrior-prince. Showing off their lion-prince .. captive of the empire .. reduced to a mere shell.
Tiradates wanted them to carry the word back. Prince Menander. Tortured out of his skin. Tiradates had confused women marched around what they took to be their prince, the last hope.
In his confusion, delirious, his fluid-starved brain in turmoil, deep-down Maciste had heard women sobbing. Children clutching terrified at their mothers’ legs, not understanding. A prince’s people paraded confused around their prince .. tortured nearly to death.
The bastard! Tiradates HAD come visiting. Twice.
“Put up quite a show, they did.”
Maciste felt even now the sting of the general’s mockery. Hailing Maciste’s helplessness. A broken man.
“Shit, can women put up a stink! Nearly deafened me with their wailing. Like a load of cats.”
Had that been the noises Maciste had heard? Not the demons of the underworld. The woman weeping over their prince.
Then .. the fog of his memories clearing … Maciste remembered. It had been dark, the women sobbing in the darkness. But when Tiradates had come mocking, it had been light. Daylight.
That bastard. Tiradates HAD released the women. He had let them go. Freed them in the night. Chased them out of the camp into the night. Out into the forests in the dark. Where the wild cats lurked.