The sun had long set when Admiral Felson left the warmth of his estate and trudged through the half-melted snow to the old stables, a lantern in one hand and a large burlap sack clutched in the other.
The deer hadn’t been kept there for nearly two decades now, but about sixteen years ago these stables had been converted to host a new guest.
Though it was a moonless night, the Admiral did not need light to unlock the stable door and even lit the gas lamps inside by the memory of doing the same a thousand times before as a boy.
There was no longer individual pens inside, but a small hallway and a gate into one large compartment. He heard a growl from the shadowed area beyond the lamp’s jurisdiction.
“It’s just me, lad,” said the Admiral, the taste of ale still sharp on his breath. “Look, I’ve got your favorite.”
There was a shuffling of straw and then a brown snout emerged from the dark, sniffing suspiciously. Admiral Felson held up the bag. It was only a moment before the beast lumbered to the light edge of the stall.
The moon-faced cave bear would be nearly nine feet tall on his hind legs, and though he was small for the species, he could easily bust his way through the pine walls that enclosed him.
Instead, the bear simply looked from the bag in the admiral’s hand to the lock on the stall door, then back to the Admiral. He sniffed again noisily.
“Can’t unlock it myself. Sorry lad, you know the rules.”
The bear made a noise something between an agitated huff and a bark.
“Her rules, not mine,” said the Admiral, tapping on the lock, which he could easily have opened.
Instead, he stepped back as the bear ventured back into the shadow and returned slowly on his hind legs, his head almost touched the ceiling. He carried a large chunk of granite in his paws like a ball, and with another dramatic huff, dropped it into a steel pail attached to the door at waist-height.
The pail lowered to the ground and tensed the cable it was attached to, and there was a metallic click as the lock opened. The bear then stepped back, still on his hind legs, and sat expectantly.
With a chuckle, the Admiral opened the door and entered the stall without hesitation. The bear towered over him, but there was nothing to fear as Admiral Felson reached into the bag and offered from it a shining green apple.
The bear took it happily and moved onto all fours to eat it. When it was finished, he pushed his head against the Admiral’s hand impatiently and was rewarded with another apple.
Looking around the stall, Admiral Felson saw the saddle specially crafted for the bear, hung on a large hook where cobwebs had begun to form on it. Nex to the saddle was an old wooden stool on which a thin, yellowed book lay.
He stepped over to it, and brushed the dust off the cover, but not picking it up.
A Practical Guide To Befriending and Training Your Moon-Faced Cave Bear by Astrid Felson, the cover stated in the practiced but crooked scrawl of a child. Inside there were several blotched ink drawings of different tricks the author had taught this bear, as well as dates scrawled in the bottom margins, marking each accomplishment.
The Admiral lifted the book up and sat down, placing it gently on his lap and setting down the sack, which the bear immediately snatched and pulled a stale sticky bun from it. Admiral Felson imagined the bear’s glossy black eyes gave him a look of betrayal before tearing into the sweet bread.
He looked down again, his chest tight as he flipped through the journal. At the back was a drawing that, although done by a child, was unmistakably a portrait of the bear as a cub, standing on his hind legs next to a young girl with long red ringlets.
Underneath it was captioned “Me & Arten, my best friend. Aderfod 1881”
The drawing was blocked by shadow as the bear came over to Admiral Felson’s side. Arten considered the drawing for a moment, then rest his head on the Admiral’s lap, pushing his large black nose into the drawing. A wet imprint was left behind when the bear looked up at the Admiral, then over to the lit doorway of the stables, ears perked.
“She’s not coming, lad. She’s gone.” The bear pawed at the burlap bag again, searching for more treats. “You think I was too harsh on her?”
Arten gave a bellow in response. The scolding tone was so person-like that the Admiral couldn’t help but give a small, sad laugh.
“Alright, point taken! You’re right. I was definitely too harsh this time.”
The last apple rolled out from the bag, but Arten merely gave it a sniff before returning his attention to the Admiral again. The bear gave a small whining growl and laid his head down again on the drawing.
Admiral Felson lay a hand on Arten’s head, leaning back to rest his head on the stable wall.
“I miss her too.”