Bear to the Bone

By: Terry Bolryder

Prologue


The little brown bear howled, its leg tangled painfully in a trap so old, so rusted it was probably put in the woods long ago, back before bear traps were banned.

It had been dumb to go into the forest, especially this late.

But every time he felt the shift coming, all he could do was go tearing out into the woods, running blindly as he felt the animal in him take over.

The pounding stress inside him would only stop when he heard the reassuring press of his paws over soft dirt and leaves, as he darted in and out of the shadows of the forest, cool mountain air blowing down over his face, which was now sheltered by fur.

Being in his bear form was both terrifying and electrifying.

His mother had been a shifter, too, but she’d left earlier that year, so he’d had make the transformation on his own.

He was angry at her, but right now, he was angrier at himself. No matter how frustrated his father made him, he knew better than to run in the woods. It was dangerous and wild out here, but he hadn’t been able to resist the animal inside him. The one begging to be free.

Now he was stuck, and the sun was beginning to set. He let out another plaintive whine as he pulled at the trap, but the sharp bite of pain on his leg stopped him. The chain was attached to a large tree, so he had no hope of felling it to get away.

His leg was starting to feel numb, so he curled up in a little ball and whined, waiting for it to get dark and cold.

No one would come looking for him. And if they did, no one would know he was a person. And who would approach a bear, even one in a trap? Wouldn’t they think the bear would eat them if they let him go? That’s what he would have thought.

Maybe if someone came by, he could shift back. He was no good at shifting on purpose. It all came like a whirlwind and left him in a heap when it was over.

He tried to think back to what his mom had said. Not much.

Cage, when it comes, don’t fight it. She had touched his head, and thinking of that kindness now made tears bite the corners of his eyes. He burrowed his face in his paws, hiding from the world and the waning light.

No one was coming. No one could help him. He’d die out here in this forest, chained to this tree, and no one would even care.

Not the bikers raising him, if you could call it that. Not the mother who’d walked out without looking back.

Not that he blamed her. The Aces were horrible. He just wished he could have gone, too. Maybe she thought his dad would come after them, but he knew better. And—

Crack.

The snap of a twig had him lifting his head in shock, twitching as he looked around the forest. He inhaled deeply, his senses sharper in this form.

More crushing of twigs. Someone was coming through the brush. He could see them now, silhouetted by the dying light. It was a person.

In reflex, he shrank back. If it were one of the bikers from the compound, or a hunter, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in him.

Well, not without a fight. He raised to his feet as well as he could and faced them on all fours, his lips pulling back to bare his teeth in a snarl.

“It’s okay,” a soft, soothing voice said as the figure stepped closer, into a shaft of light between the trees.

He blinked. It was a girl, probably his age or just slightly older. Maybe twelve or thirteen.

He felt an instant kinship with her. Her dark-blond hair was messy and there was grass in it like she’d recently fallen. She was wearing a puffy jacket and she had a roundness to her he liked. She looked healthy. Happy.

She must live at the house out in the meadow. He’d gone by there once when he’d heard sounds of children playing there. He’d asked his dad once, and he’d said the kids there didn’t have parents, and not to go there again. That they didn’t mix with those types.


Cage had listened, but he couldn’t help thinking about the house in the meadow and sort of wanting to be parentless so he could live there.

The girl was moving closer. Her clothes were worn but clean. She took careful steps, as if trying not to scare him. That was stupid. He was a bear. Didn’t she know he could eat her? Well, he wasn’t sure, but wasn’t that what bears did? Eat people?

“I want to help you,” she said, taking another cautious step forward. “You won’t hurt me, will you?”

He looked at her in confusion. Did she expect him to answer her as a bear? Did she really think wild animals could promise to behave?

But he wasn’t going to hurt her. And he wasn’t a wild animal.

He nodded, wondering if that was a weird thing for a bear to do. But he had no choice. He couldn’t risk her leaving. He might die in this horrible trap.

Curse whoever placed it here.

“I need to go get something,” she said. “Maybe someone to help.”

He looked up in alarm. If she brought a grown-up, they’d probably tell her not to help. Tell her it’s foolish and to let the stupid bear die so it wasn’t a danger to humans.

He slumped down again in despair.

“It’s okay. I won’t get someone, then,” she said, stepping forward and crouching a few feet in front of him. “I hate these old traps. I saw Willow rescue a raccoon from one, though. I know what she used. I think I can do it.” She reached a tentative hand toward his face.

Was this girl crazy? Touching a bear?

But he stayed still, and her hand touched the top of his head, sinking into his fur. He froze at how wonderful it felt. How long it had been since he’d been touched. He growled and pressed into her, not caring he was a bear in a trap. Only caring someone was caring for him.

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