I helped Benebarak get as comfortable as he could without him yowling in pain. The blood was now flowing from his mouth in a constant stream, and occasionally he’d cough up a chunk of something as black as coal. I listened as he said, leaning him over to clear his mouth when it would become too full for him to speak clearly.
“When I die, ye piece me up. Yer ta eat me carcass, ye un’erstand undergrounder?”
“What? No. No, Benebarak I won’t.”
“Listen to me, no time ta argue. If ye eat me brain, at’ll gi’ ye the po’er o’ sage wisdom to guide ye where ye need ter go. If ye eat me heart at’ll gran’ ye the po’er of bravery and more stamina ‘an ye e’er dreamed possible. If ye eat me hands at’ll gi’ ye me gift of lightnin’. At’ll be passed on to ye. Ye has ter eat me undergrounder, don’ waste a gift given by the great mother. Mos’ of all, thank ‘er when yer finished. Thank her and don’ forget to gi’ ‘er a sacrifice from me body. Lay me innards on tha groun’ ’an tell her tha sacrifice is for ’er, and thank ’er for e’rything. Ye hear me?”
Benebarak coughed heartily and his whole body shook.
“Heed me, undergrounder, ’an ye’ll have me stamina, me abilities, and it’ll be damn hard to kill ye, ’less ye get innit with a bunch like meself. We’re a tough bunch and know ‘ow to land killin’ blows to each o’er. Stay away from us. Ye…ye…’ear…” and he fell silent, slumped against me.
“Benebarak, wake the fuck up!” I shouted, shaking him ferociously. “Wake up you son of a bitch! You can’t just lay all this on me and then die!”
I was out of breath by the time my mind allowed me to process that he was, in fact, dead. After taking a moment to breathe, I closed his eyelids with my fingers and crossed his arms before dragging him over toward the brush where I felt that his body would at least be safe. I formulated a small makeshift shelter out of some branches I was able to gather and set to work on getting a fire started. Typically, I tried to avoid fire while out in the open, but the air was growing colder and I had no choice.
I was able to kindle a flame and tossed some extra twigs and branches onto the pile to keep it going. Star moved closer as if trying to warm herself, sniffing around Benebarak as she passed. “Hey girl, just you and me now, huh?” I said, patting her nose. She whinnied as if she understood. “I guess I’d better go gather some more kindling to keep this flame going so we don’t freeze to death overnight. You keep the fire going.”
I walked out along the banks of the stream, pulling double duty, trying to determine if there were any edible plants or animals in or near the water while searching for some dry wood. I was humming to myself, a little tune to the rhythm of the wind when I came upon a large footprint. Must be from a Stormrider, I thought. Looks big enough. It appeared to have been there for a while, so I thought nothing of it until I saw another a few feet away. It was accompanied by another set of footprints, strangely shaped. I can’t say that I’d ever seen anything quite like it in any of my training or my travels.
Curiosity got the best of me and I found myself following the trail of footprints, appearing to march in tandem, along the bank of the stream and into the tree line. I was able to trace them to a small clearing where the grass appeared to have been windswept by a massive storm. It was laying on its side, not quite flatly, but enough that it was bent so that it didn’t properly sway in the wind. The footprints seemed to have vanished there. Strange, I thought. But then, maybe the ground had just been too dry for the prints to stick or maybe they’d been diminished by the weather. Either way, I decided it best to gather the rest of my kindling and make my way back to my small camp.
I hadn’t found any food on my little trek, not even a small edible berry. I could hear my stomach grumble over the sound of the wind and as I tossed another branch onto the fire, I peered over at Benebarak’s corpse. I wasn’t sure that I believed he was dead. After what I’d witnessed that day, I expected him to rise from his slumber and beat me something fierce for not partaking of his flesh like he’d commanded. My mind began to wander back to his last words. My stomach shook me out of my daze. Even after all I’d been through, even though I wasn’t sure I believed his nonsense, the Stormrider had begun to look mighty delicious.