Ride the Fire – Pamela Clare

“They’re going to burn us, aren’t they?” Nicholas Kenleigh ignored the panic in Josiah’s voice and Eben’s frightened whimpering, strained in vain to free himself from the tight leather cords that held him to the tall wooden stake. His hands, bound fast above his head, had long since lost any feeling. There would be no escape. “I don’t want to die!” Eben sobbed, his freckled face wet with tears. Nicholas took a deep breath, sought for words to comfort the two younger men, found none. He had taken them under his wing shortly after he’d joined Washington’s forces, tried to teach them to track and to shoot well. None of that mattered now. “I have no wish to die either.” Especially not like this. “But if death is all that is left to us, then we must face it with courage.” His words sounded meaningless, even to his own ears, but seemed to calm them. Josiah was nineteen, Eben only seventeen. They reminded him of his younger brothers—Alec, William, and Matthew. They didn’t deserve this. No one deserved this.

Nicholas had known from the moment they were taken captive what the Wyandot would do to them. He’d warned Josiah and Eben, but they had not listened. Instead, they’d allowed themselves to be deceived by feasts, promises of adoption, and the pleasures of sex with comely, young Wyandot women. But those promises were false, food and sex merely part of the ritual of sacrifice. Nicholas supposed that caring for the physical needs of their prisoners and bringing them pleasure took away some of the guilt the Wyandot must feel at torturing people to death—if, indeed, they felt guilt. But he had seen the deception for what it was, had eaten his food in silence, turned the woman away. Dark-eyed and pretty she had been, but he would not risk getting her with child and leaving a piece of himself behind to grow up here. Nor would he betray Penelope, his fiancée. Fidelity when death was imminent might seem strange to most men, but Nicholas had been raised to keep his word and to put loyalty to family and friends above all else. He would try to die the way he had lived.

Washington’s force had been encamped near the Ohio when the Wyandot had attacked under cover of night. Nicholas had been discussing the next day’s march with George over a bottle of Madeira when they’d been interrupted by the sounds of war cries, shouts, and gunfire. He’d fought his way across the camp toward Josiah’s and Eben’s tents and spied them in the distance, wild with bloodlust, pursuing a group of fleeing Wyandot into the forest. He’d charged after them, shouted for them to stop, warned them it was a trap. But it was too late. They had been ambushed and overcome before his words reached them. And though Nicholas had managed to kill several warriors in an attempt to free them, there were simply too many. One blow to the temple with a war club, and Nicholas had found himself a prisoner, too. Now they would die together. His mind flashed on his mother, and he felt a moment of deep anguish.

His death would be hardest on her. She had opposed his decision to join Washington and serve as a tracker, had begged him to stay at home, take up his role as heir of the Kenleigh shipbuilding empire, and produce an heir himself. But at twenty-six, Nicholas had felt certain there was still plenty of time for such things. Besides, Washington was a good friend and a fellow Virginian—and his need was dire. The outcome of this war would make or break British authority on this continent. Jamie—Nicholas’s elder by four years and his uncle—had served with Washington during his march north in 1754 and had fought beside George in the blood and mud of Fort Necessity. But Jamie now had a wife—lovely Bríghid—and two small sons. He would not leave them. Nicholas had reasoned he could do the job just as well as Jamie, as they had been taught together by Takotah, the old Tuscarora healer who had made her home with his family since long before he’d been born. It had seemed right that he fill Jamie’s shoes.

And now? Now he would need every ounce of strength, every bit of courage he possessed. He was not immune to fear. Eleven fires had been lit in fire pits running down the center of the enormous longhouse. Old women busied themselves building up the fires, adding wood until the lodge was uncomfortably warm in the already stifling July heat. As the fires crackled, Eben again began to weep, Josiah to curse the Wyandot. “W-will it be quick?” Nicholas had heard stories, accounts of the French priests who’d first encountered the Wyandot a hundred years before. He prayed the priests had lied. “I don’t know.” “Bloody savages!” Josiah spat on the dirt floor. “It’s good they like fire, because they’re goin’ to burn in hell!” Wyandot villagers began to drift through the low entrance—men, women, children.

Soon the longhouse was packed from end to end. The Wyandot stared at their prisoners with solemn eyes, and Nicholas could sense an undercurrent of expectation. Last to enter was the Wyandot war chief, Atsan, who had dressed in ceremonial garb, a great bearskin cape draped over his bare, aged shoulders, a single eagle feather in his scalp lock. He held up his hand to silence the murmurs and whispers of his people, began to speak in Wyandot. His words floated just beyond Nicholas’s comprehension, strangely familiar and yet utterly foreign. He did not speak Wyandot, but it sounded somewhat like Tuscarora, which he knew well. Several times he thought he understood a word or phrase—Big Knives, fight, river—but the words were spoken so quickly that Nicholas couldn’t quite catch them. And then Nicholas recognized one: “See-tah.” Fire. A few feet away Eben wept like a frightened child.

Josiah trembled but glared at the Wyandot with youthful bravado. How vulnerable and alone men are at the hour of their deaths. The thought, detached from emotion, flickered through Nicholas’s mind, left dark regret in its wake. Why hadn’t he been able to get to them faster? Why hadn’t he been able to stop this? Why hadn’t he found a means to escape? He closed his eyes, sent up what might have been a prayer. Let it be fast. Let us be strong. Do not let them suf er! Even as the last thought faded, several women stepped forward from the crowd and walked toward the captives. Nicholas felt cool fingers brush against his skin as his shirt and breeches were cut from his body, leaving him entirely naked. A glance showed him Josiah and Eben had likewise been stripped. Both were red in the face, and Nicholas realized they felt shame at being unclothed before strangers.

As Atsan’s last words drifted into silence, the women who’d undressed them moved to the fires and began to stir the flames. Something twisted in Nicholas’s gut. He tried to force down his fear. A young woman appeared at his side, the same young woman he’d rejected the day before. She looked up at him, her brown eyes dark with an emotion that might have been anger—or lust. In her hand was a knife. Nicholas just caught a glimpse of the blade before she slid the tip into the skin of his belly. His muscles tensed in surprise at the razor-sharp pain. To his left, Eben shrieked. Nicholas watched in odd detachment as the woman deftly carved a small pocket from his flesh and wondered for a moment if she intended to skin him.

Hot blood poured down his belly, past his exposed groin to his bare thighs. She looked up, met his gaze, a faint smile on her lips. Then she stepped aside to make room for an old woman, who carried a small glowing ember from the fire on a flint blade. Nicholas realized what they were going to do a moment before they did it, and took a deep breath. I will not cry out. I must not cry out. The crone slipped the tip of her blade into the cut, pried the pocket of flesh open, and dropped the ember inside. A sizzling sound. Searing pain. The smell of burning flesh—his own flesh.

It hurt far beyond anything he had imagined. He heard screams. Were they his screams? No. It was Josiah and Eben. A hiss of breath was all that escaped him. His gaze met the young woman’s and held it. They will not break me. The women worked efficiently. Swiftly they cut him again and again, carved deep gashes in his belly, chest, and back, tucked live embers inside each. Pain consumed him—blistering, searing pain.

His entire body seemed to burn. Sweat poured down his face, stung his eyes. He fought to control his breathing, to keep his thoughts focused, but felt himself growing dizzy, disoriented, almost delirious, as if his mind were seeking escape from the unbearable torment that had become his body. They will not break me. Several feet away, Josiah jerked and writhed like a tortured puppet on a string, screaming in agony. Eben had fainted and hung limply in his bonds. Women worked to revive him, splashed water on his face and chest. It was not compassion, Nicholas knew, but a desire to prolong the boy’s suffering. Rage. It cut through Nicholas’s pain, through his muddled thoughts, burned like a brand in his gut.

He searched the crowd for Atsan, found the old man watching him, met his gaze. Drawing on his knowledge of Tuscarora and doing his best to imitate Wyandot inflection, Nicholas spoke, his voice rough with pain and hatred. “E-hye-ha-honz, o-negh-e-ke-wishe-noo.” I am dying, but I will conquer my enemy. Whether Atsan understood him, Nicholas could not tell. The old man did not react. And Nicholas wondered for a moment whether, in his pain, he had imagined speaking or whether his words had been meaningless babble. Another cut, another ember. Breath rushed from his lungs. Every muscle in his body screamed in protest.

He closed his eyes, bit his tongue, fought desperately not to cry out. Dear God, how much more of this could he take? Lyda stepped back from the prisoner, her hands slick with his blood, and tried not to show her surprise at his words. Though the man spoke with difficulty—in what sounded more like the speech of their enemies, the Tuscarora, than their own language—his meaning was clear. He would die, but he would not give in to pain. Something fluttered in her belly. Here was a warrior. He was a beautiful man—taller than most men in her village with hair almost as black as a raven’s wing. His face was proud and strong, its male strength softened by long, dark lashes. And his body … She let her gaze travel the length of him, seeing beneath the blood and burns, from his powerful shoulders to his broad chest, slim hips, and muscular thighs. His breast was sprinkled with an intriguing mat of crisp, dark hair that tapered in a line between the ridges of his belly to his sex.

She let her eyes rest there for a moment and felt renewed outrage at his rejection of her. Had he not turned her away, she would now know what it was like to have such a man pleasure her. She had noticed him the moment the warriors had brought him and the other Big Knife prisoners into the village. The men claimed he had slain at least nine Wyandot warriors before one of them managed to strike him on the head with his club, leaving a gash on his left temple. Still, it had taken four men to subdue him and bind his wrists. Lyda had known from the moment she saw him that she wanted him. When he looked her up and down and then turned her away as if she were worthless, the humiliation had been almost unbearable. She was considered a great beauty by the people of her nation. More than that, she was a woman of power, a holy woman, granddaughter to holy women dating back to the beginning of her people and a daughter of Atsan, the great war chief. No man had ever turned her away.

Until yesterday. She had rejoiced then to know he would be sacrificed in flames and had vowed to play a role in his torment. But now? Her grandmother slipped another ember beneath his skin. His body jerked, every muscle taut as he strained against the cords that held him. Breath hissed from between his clenched teeth. His brows grew furrowed with obvious agony. Sweat drenched his black hair, ran in rivulets down his face. But he did not cry out. Lyda knew what she wanted. She’d had lots of men in her twenty-three years, had taken a few into her mother’s lodge as husbands.

Though she had grown tired of them all rather quickly and set them aside, she had rejoiced in the pain of birth and rush of waters that had brought her three daughters into the world. But with a man such as this—a man who looked at her with hatred in his strange blue eyes, who was bold enough to reject her, and who endured suffering with the strength of the bravest Wyandot warrior—think of the children she might bear! They would be proud, handsome, and strong, and their courage would bring her honor. She would have his seed. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. Her father had already committed him to fire and death. And after witnessing his courage, the warriors would be eager to eat his flesh, particularly his heart, so that they might take in his strength. They would not wish to spare him. But, of course, her father had never been able to deny her anything


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