The choice is his. Fight or run.
But the being that is neither a man nor an animal never gives the decision any conscious thought. He does not weigh his options, make any speedy mental calculations as to his chances for survival, which way the odds may lie in his favor. Better to run; can he get away? Is he, perhaps, faster? Or better to fight? Might his chances be better, might
it be more probable that he would live, if he stands his ground? None of these things does he contemplate. Not even for the briefest second does the Blackmane consider running away. That he will fight is as certain as the next beat of his heart or his next breath. He will fight. As certain as the death that will claim him, or his adversary.
His enemy–the lion–is young. It has taken its little pride of females from an older male, has killed the patriarch to do it. Strong, then, as well as young. Its weight approaches five hundred pounds. These things perhaps the Blackmane will recall later, should he live. Later might come to mind the rawness of his senses, the awareness of all the world around him in such a perfect clarity. The feel of the grass under his feet and around his lower legs, the many scents in his nostrils. The tangy, bitter taste of adrenaline under his tongue, the strength of his heartbeat. Never, he may recall, has he felt more alive than this moment when he stands facing death. But these are things of which he is unaware just now. Now he thinks or feels nothing save the desire to kill. Now he wants blood.
The lion stands no more than fifteen feet away, its tail stiff and erect as it crouches down, muscles bunching in its four thick legs, preparing for its leap or its charge. Its jaws gape wide, revealing the teeth as long and thick as a large man’s fingers. Yellow teeth, slimy with saliva, ready to tear through flesh and shatter bone. The lion fills its lungs and releases its roar, a sound so terrible that often it freezes prey animals in their tracks, half-
killing them with fear before it ever reaches them with its claws or its fangs.
The Blackmane does not cower. The lion’s intended prey gives voice to his own roar. This strange, alien thing does not turn to flee or topple to the ground before the lion. Rather he runs to meet the lion’s charge.
The two creatures come together. The lion’ weight, so much greater, carries the smaller brute down beneath it. But as it falls, the lion rakes empty air with its front feet. The Blackmane ducks below the slashing claws and drives his shoulder into the lion’s ribcage, turns to the side, wraps his two arms around the lion’s great neck. The Blackmane draws in his legs, wrapping one over the lion’s back while he tries to dig with the other into the lion’s abdomen. He sinks his own yellow fangs into the side of the lion’s neck, but the mane is too thick and he cannot reach flesh. Neither can the lion reach its adversary with either its front or hind legs, or with its jaws, not in such a position. So the lion rolls over to crush this strange creature beneath it.
The Blackmane holds on as the lion thrashes. Both animals spray urine, souring the air, which is still hot with the scent of estrus, the female lion in heat, which has drawn the Blackmane in the first place and is, he may understand later, the reason for this current confrontation.
The lion tries to dislodge the alien thing but succeeds only in allowing the smaller beast to get a better hold. The Blackmane’s hands come together and do something the lion with its forepaws cannot do; his finger-like appendages interlock and hold. The Blackmane turns his head aside and draws a needed breath. Then his arms tense, his shoulders. And he squeezes.
The lion goes mad. It rolls onto its feet and bucks like a horse, falls onto the Blackmane, then gets to its feet to do so again. The Blackmane’s foot slips from the lion’s belly, tearing open the flesh between the lion’s hind legs. The lion reaches the Blackmane’s shoulder and peels away the skin there, its talons unable due to the awkward angle to shatter the bones and free the lion from the creature’s grasp. The Blackmane squeezes. Planting one foot on the ground, he lifts the lion off its feet for an instant, slamming it back down. The lion tries to roar but cannot fill its lungs. The Blackmane squeezes tighter, tighter still.
The lion’s neck breaks. Jagged, broken vertebrae cut into and sever the lion’s spinal cord. Its legs cease kicking and its roar is stillborn in its breast. The Blackmane releases his hold on the lion and springs forward to sink his teeth into an exposed part of the lion’s throat. He bites down hard. He keeps his jaws locked there for a full ten minutes after the lion has stopped twitching beneath him.
The taste of blood washes away the madness, the fever in his brain. He slides from the body of the lion and rests on his knees. His breath comes in large, greedy gulps. As the seconds pass his heart ceases its drumbeat.
The females have come nearer, standing vigil a few yards away. Two of them. Watching. Unsure, keeping a safe distance.
The Blackmane can think again.
*These females are mine now. My pride.*
He gets to his feet and moves toward the larger female. It is she who is in estrus, ready to mate. He will take her.
With a snarl, the lioness charges him. Her sister follows.
The Blackmane falls beneath them.