Hellgate. Aptly named. Ironically the oven was one of the few occasions when they weren’t on his back every waking moment. The rare chance to put his thoughts together ….. until the breath-robbing heat got to him. Until his every thought had run down his flanks with his last drop of sweat.
Starvation .. on top of everything else. Not starve him enough to kill him off. Their emperor was supposedly sending for him. They couldn’t risk starving him to death. They’d pay if Vologases didn’t get to execute his rebel prince.
But not enough food to cope with these impossible physical demands. Maciste was strong, he was tough. But already he felt himself weakening. The stresses of this sweat box .. the other tortures .. forced into strength-sapping labour under the bite of the lash ….. and that on just a few mouthfuls of stale bread. They’d not kill him off. But they’d have him so weak .. physically, mentally ….. he’d break.
Panicky he could feel his head whirling, he knew what that meant. He was going around in circles, over and over the same worries about the tortures, weakening. And still he was not one step closer to working out how he was going to get himself free of this place. Or how he was going to cope .. stay strong .. keep fighting back. He had to change things, at the very least he had to get more food in his belly.
Maciste knew how. They had told him how. From that first day they had told him how he could help himself .. what he had to do to make things easier on himself …..
But could he do that? Could he make himself do that? Wasn’t that just giving in to them? What would that act mean to himself? If he did what they demanded of him? Wouldn’t that be the first step on an even steeper downward path? Did that take them to total victory over him? Leading him skittering on a sliding trajectory to despair? A sign he was giving up. The fight knocked out of him.
That would be how THEY would see it. His first capitulation. A sign to them he was submitting. They’d told what they demanded, what he had to do to improve his rations.
Could he let that be? Could he give them that satisfaction? Everything that defined him for the warrior he was .. abandoned. Did it mean .. doing that despicable act .. did it mean they had won, this foul enemy?
Giving in to their appalling demands .. he was letting them win, wasn’t he? Was that what it meant? Was he fooling himself? Thinking he could limit his capitulation to that one thing? That he thought he could contain their personal victory over him? That he could control them? By giving them this just one small thing?
First that foul deed … and then the next? One downward step and then another. Wasn’t that how it went? Was he being stupid? Weren’t they always one step ahead of him? Would he be taking a fatally dangerous stride? Believing he could wrest back control by sacrificing one little bit of manly pride? Wasn’t he fooling himself that they wouldn’t take that as a sign of weakness? And then they ratchet it up. Tighten the screws?
Yet he couldn’t let things stand like this. They had him trapped. In time, he’d weaken, he’d break. This regime was too much …. Even for a determination as strong as his. Things had to change. And there was only one way.
By taking their offer ….. was he fooling himself?
A first step on the slippery slope to self-destruction? It was a big move. He needed time to think that through. TIME? THINK? Luxuries. He didn’t have much time. In this oven. Already his muscular chest was coated with thick gooey sweat .. stinging in his eyes .. getting increasingly hard to cope with taking in overheated air. Oppressive heat baked into the clay pressing in on him from all sides.
Not long before his brain was cooked to crisp. Thoughts boiled to over-watered cabbage. Maciste was determined to fight. He needed a plan. He had to think. He had to decide. A lot depended on it. Not just his life. His sense of worth. What he meant to himself.
Think. Decide. Before his ability to think was charred like vegetables.