“Have you gotten lost in your head again?” something echoed; a voice, perhaps.
Arthur started to blink rapidly and watched the dirt and wood and early twilight sky slowly come into focus. Surely it was still morning, he thought. He glanced around and saw Morgana sitting up against a tree, her forearms resting on her bent knees and a sad smirk resting on her chapped lips.
“I said,” her voice rang out, much clearer than before, “Have you gotten lost in your head again?”
Arthur frowned at her, confused. She gestured smoothly to the ground around his feet. He looked down at the tremendous amount of firewood scattered across the clearing, perfectly split. He clenched his fist around his axe and brought his empty hand up to the bridge of his nose; he pinched, hard.
“I completely understand, though, why you would,” Morgana continued lightly, standing up and brushing off her skirt. “Get lost, that is. I’m sure it’s such a quagmire in there, hard not to get trapped.”
Arthur forcibly unwrapped his fingers from the axe handle, letting it slip to the soft forest floor. He let out a small chuckle and dropped heavily onto his splitting stump. He ran his dirty hands through his damp hair, pushing his hat off his head. A late Autumn breeze brushed along the newly revealed skin on his forehead, sweetly cooling the headache just starting to form. Morgana approached, her movements large and obvious. She held out a, relatively, clean rag. Arthur took it without hesitation, to bury his face in it, to hide whatever tears might slip through.
“At least we’ve got enough firewood to last a couple winters,” she teased. “Not everyone can boast of this sort of wealth.”
Arthur heard her shuffling around, gathering up the spits in her apron. He breathed in the perfume of the rag: residue of their tiny home, Morgana’s fresh herbs, the warmth of his bread, Morgana’s singular scent of a coming rainfall, and the trace amounts of Ellie’s dense fur.
He emerged after a moment, his heart unclenched and tears dry. Morgana had stacked a fair portion of the firewood in her cart and was now busy organizing the rest. Arthur pocketed her rag and stumbled to assist her.
“Ellie’s brought home some rabbit, smart girl,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ll have a feast tonight.”
Arthur made sure to smile while she could see his face. She smiled back, the slight pinch in her eyebrows relaxing.
After they had gathered what they could into neater piles, Arthur tied his water flask and satchel to his hip, gently situated his hat back on his head, and swung his axe over his shoulder. Morgana secured the wood in the back of her cart, then moved to the front, hoisted up the handles and started trudging back home. There wasn’t much of a path, but the deep brush bent out of her way serenely. Arthur followed behind, letting the air cool his overheated skin and overworked arms. Then Morgana made her way past some berry-bushes and Fall-flowers. Though they were clearly setting in for hibernation, they gave a final heave and bloomed reverently for her, perhaps for the last time that season. Arthur made sure to pluck some of what was offered, tucking the fruit and flowers tenderly into his satchel, just in case there weren’t many forest creatures left in this part of the wood to spread the seed for spring. A feast tonight, indeed, he thought.
They walked at an unhurried pace uphill. They struggled over the exposed stone and carefully carried the heavy cart over the shallowest part of the chilled stream, before following it Southward until it veered off, to go around rather than up. They ascended over the crest of their hill as the grey evening grew darker and their cottage popped out from behind a cluster of happy pines. Arthur gasped, not so much in surprise as in familiar awe, when he saw one in the distance lift a wilting branch and wave in cheerful welcome at the pair cautiously climbing down the steep face of the vale. Morgana threw Arthur a grin and he laughed, raising his eyebrows and pointing his axe at the sight.
"Yes," she said, breathing heavily but still grinning impishly, "They've missed you."
He rolled his eyes and she replied, "Not as much as me, though."
He brought his free hand to his chest in mock outrage as she paused to lift the wheels of her cart over a particularly steep drop.
"Well, alright, it's equal," she conceded with exaggerated huffiness.
They continued on a few more pernicious steps before she stopped abruptly and adopted a more sincere tone, saying, "I think you worried them, what with the way you left this morning."
They looked at each other in the fading light, Morgana inquisitive and Arthur sorrowful. He brought his hand to his chest again and bowed his head. She took the apology with a nod. Then, after several anxious moments, she broke the solemn mood:
"You're in better spirits now, though, Sir Grumps."
He stuck his tongue out and walked past her in a well-practiced royal saunter. He was rewarded with a laugh.
The sun had finally set by the time they made it to their small home at the edge of the wood. They unloaded the cart outside by the moon's silver light, unclouded perhaps because of Morgana's pleading look thrown to the sky. Arthur checked inside the window for Ellie but didn't see her lounging on her special rug by the empty fireplace so he grabbed his bow and arrow from the sill and strolled through the herb garden south, until he could hear the far off roar of the river. He nocked an arrow, drew the string, and let out low whistle as he let the arrow loose. It sailed swiftly over the tree tops, carrying his ringing tone. He waited no more than half a minute before their wolf-friend Ellie came bounding up the hillside, arrow delicately held between her teeth. He crouched down.
"Hello, girl," he whispered roughly as she deposited the arrow in his outstretched hand. "Thank you."
The wolf licked his fingers and he couldn't help whispering again:
The cold air swallowed it up, but Morgana, watching them, heard it all the same.