“Judi!” Maribelle ran out of the thicket. Her friend stood rigid, holding up a hand. She looked at Maribelle. The native women were all screaming now. Even the men. One of them scooped up the two children. A basket of clothes toppled into the water. A woman dropped a clay pot and it broke. They ran. Maribelle couldn’t move.
He stood not more than ten yards from Maribelle and Judith. The creature. The Blackmane.
“God!” Maribelle muttered.
He stood on two legs, like a man. Indeed his limbs looked like the arms and legs of a man. But his hands, if they could be called hands, were too big. It looked like he was wearing catcher’s mitts. His feet, too. Big tufts of dark hair along his calves and forearms, at his groin. His limbs and chest were covered with a tawny down. His chest puffed out more than a man’s, more even than a weightlifter, making his waist and hips look even narrower than they were. The creature was tall (He’s gotta be at least seven feet!) but appeared to have a slight hunched posture, the shoulders rounded and perhaps the upper back as well. Maribelle couldn’t tell because of the hair. The mane. The top and back of the creature’s head, its jowls and its shoulders were covered with an enormous mane, as black as the hair of the Warumbi if not darker. The mane tapered as it descended the creature’s chest and abdomen, joining the hair at the groin. The mane fanned out around him, thick and rigid. The creature had a short tail, reaching only to the knees, hairless save for a tuft of dark fur at the tip.
All these things Maribelle noted in the span between one heartbeat and the next.
Then she looked at the face.
A man’s face. A lion’s face. Both and neither. And, God, those eyes. The color of hammered copper, shining, staring out from deep within the face. Maribelle stood transfixed in that stare.
“Hello, there,” Judith said. She raised her hand. “You remember me, don’t you? Judith Mocker? This is my friend, Maribelle.”
The creature turned away and Maribelle could breathe again. She stumbled into Mocker.
The Blackmane dropped down to all fours, leaned down and drank from the stream.
“I think he passed right by me in the bushes!” Maribelle whispered.
The creature stood. He turned and began to stare at them again.
“It’s okay,” Judith said, holding up her hand again. “You remember me, right?”
It took a step towards them. Maribelle started to move but Judith caught her by the arm. “Don’t run!” It came closer.
“Stay calm, stay calm.”
“Say something,” Judith said.
“Oh, uh, hey. Hey there.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Closer. Maribelle couldn’t breathe. Judith was squeezing her arm so tight it hurt.
Closer. Just a few steps away.
God, those eyes!
“She’s a friend,” Judith said.
A step, another, another. Maribelle’s legs shook and Judith had to help her keep standing.
“Please don’t hurt me!” Maribelle said.
He stood right in front of her. She could smell him. A pungent animal smell. He leaned down towards her.
“Oh God!” Maribelle muttered.
Judith started to sing. Amazing Grace.
Something, a whisker, brushed Maribelle’s face. She shook from head to foot. The creature brought his muzzle to her hair. He sniffed.
“Please don’t hurt me!” Maribelle repeated.
Hot breath on her neck. Hot and wet.
“The Lord has promised good to me…”
The creature crouched down in front of her. It sniffed at her vagina.
“No!” Maribelle said, covering herself with her hand. Judith held her tighter, sang even louder. “Judi!”
“Sing with me!” Judith said. Maribelle tried but couldn’t remember the words. A tear slid down her cheek. The creature moved around behind her. She felt his breath on her buttocks, the small of her back, her thighs
“…as long as life endures!”
It stood behind her. Muzzle in her hair. Snuffling. Something (A hand a finger oh dear God it’s a claw it’s a claw!) touched her back. Maribelle choked back a scream. It came out as a sob.
Judith turned around. “Now you stop that at once!” she said.
Maribelle turned, too. The creature stood, staring.
“Look what you are doing!” Judith said. “You’re scaring her!” Judith put her arms around Maribelle. “You stop it this instant!”
The creature just kept staring.
“Shoo!” Judith said, gesturing. “You go on now!”
It leaned in towards Maribelle, looking straight into her eyes.
“No!” she muttered.
A thick pink tongue, rough as sandpaper, brushed her cheek. Not hard at all, scarce touching her. Licking away a tear.
“Go on now!” Judith said. “Go!”
Those brassy eyes, so close to hers. Staring right into her, through her.
Without a sound the creature turned and walked back into the trees and disappeared.
Maribelle dropped to her knees. Judith knelt beside her, arms around her.
“Oh my dear! My darling girl! Are you all right? I’m so sorry, so sorry! I had no idea!”
Maribelle couldn’t answer. She was too busy just trying to breathe.
Her cheek was still wet from where the beast had licked her.