It wasn’t worth fighting them over. Maciste chose not to waste his strength. He’d hold out for a better opportunity later .. when his efforts might stand a chance. All the bad treatment, it seemed, was reserved for Tiradates. The climb up from the dungeons for him had been one beating after another. He must have tripped on the steps half-a-dozen times. Each time because a soldier was acting on the emperor’s word. Gave the traitor a kick. Permitted to hammer a fist at the stinking general’s head. Maciste was just an side-show. If Maciste didn’t give them any bother, he didn’t have the crap beaten out of him.
Not so Tiradates. Still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophic change in his circumstances. Other times, Tiradates had seen with his own eyes what his ruthless lord emperor was capable of. Surely he couldn’t be hoping Vologases would admit to this as a big mistake? He couldn’t be convincing himself into thinking his emperor was going to summon him, clap him laughing on the shoulders and tell Tiradates this had all been a prank?
Maciste knew the numbers were against them. Six burly guards apiece, stripped to the waist for action, clubs dangling off their belts. Not that they weren’t free enough with their fists .. as Tiradates had just found out. Taking a hammer blow to his guts. Knocking the fight out of him as his guards secured his arms to the cross.
The heat was already up when the pair were shoved outside from the darkness of the dungeon’s gloom, squinting into the sun’s savage glare. A pair of low crosses had been set up in the training yard .. empty today of fighting soldiers .. the yard had been reserved for this punishment squad.
Maciste’s arms were already spread out to the crossbars .. arms folded over the top and tied behind. The pull on his arms lifted his chest, sunk in his belly, the diaphragm pushing up into his lungs. After the beatings he’d seen Tiradates take .. it felt vulnerable.
Tiradates took another punishing punch to his sunken belly. Maciste heard him gasp out .. struggling to catch his breath as hands grabbed at his ankles and yanked his feet of the ground. His whole weight hung off his arms pinned out to the crossbar. A look of strain added to his tortured features .. fighting for air, feeling the strain pulling on his upper arms.
Maciste recognised the captain of the guard. He had supervised the rough handling when Maciste had been expelled from the emperor’s throne room. Maciste’s feet now were up in the air too. Each yanked around the sides of the upright and being tied together behind. When they were released, his feet couldn’t reach the earth beneath. Dangling in the air behind the cross, the pull of his muscular body pulling down on his shoulders. Strains started to tell already in his upper chest. His lungs being crushed by the upward push of his diaphragm against his breathing.
“The emperor has made his wishes known.”
The captain was clearly more focused on the ”traitor” than Maciste. He had Tiradates by the hair, hissing into his face.
“Heralds are out in the streets. Announcing the public flogging of a traitor. Summoning the city to attend. To witness the emperor’s wrath on those who betray.”
Tiradates started to protest. But the captain silenced him. His hand slammed Tiradates’ skull back into the upright, hard, vicious. Maciste almost felt the crack as bone pounded hard against wood. Tiradates yelled out his pain. The captain spat in his face. But to Maciste it looked like Tiradates had almost passed out.
The captain glanced over his shoulder at Maciste .. in search of someone he could scare with his words .. suspecting that the traitor was out of it. But still his grip stayed tight in Tiradates’ scalp. The traitor was number-one.
“A public flogging. Before the joyous people accompany the scum to the death fields. The lord emperor invites the city to attend their execution. Witness their dying, slowly. And rejoice in their agonising. Giving thanks to a ruler who knows ….. how best to deal with enemies of the empire.”
The captain turned to a pair of guards. The only two in full uniform.
“No food for them. No drink. Nothing.”
Maciste stared at him. Seeing from his look there’d be no mercy. If he wanted to piss, he’d do it hanging there. The captain looked up at the sky. The sun was just beginning to climb, the rays already strong .. biting into bare skin.
“Noon. We’ll come for the scum at noon.”
Maciste followed his look, he squinted up at the sun too. He reckoned it would be four hours at least before the flogging began. Something to look forward to. As the emperor planned. Hours of torture hanging off the cross. Hours of dreading. It would be the whipping of a lifetime. Expression of an emperor’s fury.
Vologases had assigned Maciste these hours of tortured anticipation. Stuck on this cross .. dreading that scourging. Hours burning up. Weakening with every hour. Weakening with every drop of sweat scorched out of his body. Broken and demoralised when taken out before the shrieking mob. A public flogging. A brutal beating after hours of unbearable strain on his arms, pain clawed through the muscle of his upper chest. Struggling to breathe, praying to pass out.
Opposite he watched Tiradates .. now straining
with the torture grinding into his armpits. Had he taken in the message? Did he realised these two sworn enemies would
be stuck in this growing agony together?
Both dangling in pain off tortured limbs?
Then to be taken away. Together. Publicly flogged. Together. Sworn enemies, executed together. Their fates ironically intertwined. Two sides of the same coin. Subjects of a bitter emperor’s wrath.