In Casseomae's world, the wolves rule the Forest, and the Forest is everywhere. The animals tell stories of the Skinless Ones, whose cities and roads once covered the earth, but the Skinless disappeared long ago.
Casseomae is content to live alone, apart from the other bears in her tribe, until one of the ancients' sky vehicles crashes to the ground, and from it emerges a Skinless One, a child. Rather than turn him over to the wolves, Casseomae chooses to protect this human cub, to find someplace safe for him to live. But where among the animals will a human child be safe? And is Casseomae threatening the safety of the Forest and all its tribes by protecting him?
Middle-grade fans of postapocalyptic fiction are in for a treat with this fanciful and engaging animal story by the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy.
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JOHN CLAUDE BEMIS is the author of the Clockwork Dark, a fantasy-steampunk trilogy composed of The Nine Pound Hammer, The Wolf Tree, and The White City. His books have been described as "original and fresh" and "a unique way of creating fantasy." John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Visit John's website at johnclaudebemis.com.
The Forest was green with summer when the bear lumbered up from the creek bed where she had been cooling off. As she crested the bank, she paused to sniff. The air was heavy with the scent of new life.
Moist smells. Earthy smells. Flowery smells.
And mixed with them was the sweet aroma of death.
The bear's coppery-black body was massive, and it was nothing for her to push aside saplings and tangles of creeper as she followed her nose toward the carcass.
The odor grew ripe. She hurried, loping through a bed of the relics rusting among the laurels. She drew in a deep sniff and stopped.
She had found it. But she was not alone.
She edged out from the thicket of laurels. A trio of cubs tumbled on the ground. At the sight of Casseomae, they squealed and ran clumsily toward their mother, who was eating from a day-old elk, her face buried in the cavity of the elk's body. She lifted her face at the sound of her cubs. Blood was smeared on her snout and nose. An assembly of crows who were waiting for their turn in the branches of a hickory overhead began jeering with loud caws.
The sow rose and circled around from behind the carcass. "Get behind me, cubs," she growled, and they retreated nervously behind their mother. "You know you are not welcome, Casseomae. I've warned you before."
"I don't mean harm," Casseomae said, dipping her head. "Not to you, Dubhe, or to your cubs. I only thought we might share this--"
Dubhe bounced on stiff front legs and popped her jaws, as their kind would to show menace. "And let you curse my cubs! No, get away from here, witch, before you steal their breath away like you did your own--"
"That's enough, Dubhe!"
Dubhe dipped her nose to the newcomer. "Alioth!"
Dubhe's cubs dropped to their bellies at the sight of their chief. "Big One," they whimpered in unison.
Alioth lumbered forward slowly, his fur looking almost red as he passed through a patch of sunlight. He was not the biggest of their clan, but he had been tough enough and strong enough to convince even the larger males that he was their chief. He was the Big One and had been for several summers now.
"Dubhe," Alioth grumbled as he came closer. "What have I said about that sort of talk? Let us all finish this lucky find together. And with haste before the Ogeema's hunters smell it."
Alioth shuffled over to the elk and bit in greedily, but neither Casseomae nor Dubhe moved. The chief pulled a stretchy piece of tissue and crunched, looking back at the sows.
"Come now," he said. "Don't let grudges dampen your appetites."
Dubhe nudged her cubs to leave. Quickly Casseomae said, "No, let Dubhe share the viand with you, Big One. She has cubs to feed. I'll forage. The Forest is rich. Isn't that what we old sows always say?"
Casseomae trotted off through the trees. She hadn't gotten far before Alioth called out behind her, "Casseomae." When he caught up, the bear chief spoke in a low voice. "You're still mourning. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, Big One," she replied.
"Don't call me that, Casseomae. You of all my bears don't have to call me that."
She gave a huff. "I'm fine, Alioth. Don't worry about me."
"But I do," the chief said. "I always have."
She bowed her head and turned to go back to her meadow. Alioth called out, "The bear's path is marked by heavy steps. You remember, don't you? You taught me that lesson long ago."
"I remember, Alioth," she said, and lumbered away.
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