Gaius prodded the cube warily with a pair of long metal tweezers yet again in a futile attempt to make it do something. How many hours had he spent examining it now? At least thirty and with no rest to speak of.
Gaius removed his spectacles and placed them on the table before rubbing his tired eyes with two fingers and sighing heavily.
Suddenly there was a scuffling outside the door and it flew open to reveal Merlin, or to be more precise, his back. The young warlock hurried in backwards, dragging Arthur by his arms over the floor. The prince looked all but dead, unmoving and limp. Gaius would easily have mistaken him to be no longer alive save the fragile rising and falling of his chest as Merlin hauled him into the room and quickly shut the door.
“What happened?” Gaius demanded, rising from his chair and dashing to the unconscious prince.
“I-I don’t know. He just collapsed.” Merlin responded helplessly, leaning over Arthur as Gaius put a finger and thumb on the prince’s wrist to check for a pulse, which he found to be irregular and weak.
Arthur wasn’t entirely sure where he was when he woke up. This, of course was because he could not open his eyes for fear of hurting someone again.
Wherever he was, he was lying down in what appeared to be a bed that was about as comfortable as being impaled by a rhino. The blankets were scratchy, the pillow seemed to have lost half of its stuffing and the mattress was like rock – totally different to his own four-poster.
He thought he heard a voice but he couldn’t tell whom it belonged to.
“Arthur?” The voice asked him and then, “Gaius, I think he’s waking up.”
Arthur groaned and attempted to rub his throbbing head but his arms appeared to be boneless and he gave up.
“Can you hear me, Sire?”
Arthur was pretty sure that was Gaius speaking and tried to reply but his throat was dry and his words constricted him.
“I’ll fetch him some water.” The physician said and there was the sound of footsteps drumming away.
“How are you feeling?” The other voice asked. Arthur recognized it to be Merlin amongst the ringing in his ears.
“Where am I?” Arthur croaked.
“In my bed. Gaius said you needed round the clock attention so, for now at least you’re here to stay.” Came the reply.
“But where will you sleep?”
“I’ll be fine on the floor.”
“I’m really sorry about all this.”
“Don’t be. Its not your fault” Merlin said as the footsteps returned.
Arthur felt someone put their hand under his neck and lift his head up gently as a cup was brought to his lips and the most delicious of water ran down his throat.
“You need to get some rest, Sire.” Gaius told him firmly as Merlin set the glass down on the bedside cabinet, “I’ll get some sleeping draught.”
“No!” Arthur said quickly, remembering the horrible unnatural sleep the draught had brought him before, “No, I’ll be fine.”
Gaius grunted and pattered away again, muttering something to Merlin about keeping an eye on him.
There were a few noises of furniture being moved around and it seemed that Merlin was constructing a makeshift bed on the floor.
“What time is it?” Arthur asked.
“Almost midnight. You’ve been out for quite a while.” Merlin answered.
“Come here a second, would you, Merlin?” Gaius’s voice travelled through from the door.
“Don’t leave me!” Arthur cried before he even had time to think.
“Why not?” Merlin said; halting in his tracks to the door, a puzzled expression etched onto his face.
“Its so dark.” Arthur said quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I’ll only be a minute, Arthur. I’ll come back-“ Merlin began.
“Merlin?” Gaius said impatiently.
“A minute, I promise.” Merlin said, squeezing his friend’s shoulder before making his way down the stairs, “What is it?” He asked Gaius who was a little way off, arms folded and staring at the cube that was at present suspended inside an odd metal contraption with a great deal of hooks, switches and valves.
“Well, that’s just it.” Gaius said, motioning crossly at the cube, “I haven’t a clue what it is or why it attacked Arthur. I’ve never in all my life seen anything like it. I’ve looked through all the possible books both in here and the library but still nothing!”
There was a short pause.
“When are we going to tell the king?” Merlin asked, “We can’t keep this a secret forever.”
“I’m not sure-“ Gaius started.
“Merlin?” Arthur all but begged from the other room, desperation drenching his words.
“In a minute.” Merlin called back and turned back to Gaius, “But how are we going to reverse it if we don’t even know what it is?”
“Well, perhaps further tests might expose its origins-“ The physician started but was once again cut off.
“In a minute, Arthur. Is the anything I can do to help?” Merlin asked Gaius who rubbed his temple thoughtfully.
“I can’t think of anything I’m afraid-“
“Okay, okay, I’m coming!” Merlin said, quickly making his way back up the stairs to discover Arthur had made a fruitless attempt to crawl out of the bed and find him.
“Merlin, where are you?” Arthur asked fearfully, groping around on the floor on his hands and knees.
“I’m here. I said I was coming back.” Merlin said, quickly helping him to his feet and back into the bed.
Arthur said nothing as the itchy woollen blankets were pulled over him and there was the sound of a chair being dragged over the floor the side of the bed.
Merlin sunk into the chair and sighed heavily, tired from lack of sleep. Since he had first found Arthur, most of his time had been spent worrying himself half to death and flicking absentmindedly through some of the books that Gaius had suggest he should read through to try and find more information about the cube. He’d found nothing, however and it had only dampened his spirits.
A glance at Arthur led Merlin to believe he had fallen asleep again. Perhaps he could go to sleep himself now…
Merlin crawled into his makeshift bed, not bothering to stifle a yawn, and fell thankfully onto a pillow.
“Merlin, are you there?” Arthur asked suddenly, alarmed and apparently not asleep.
“Yes, I’m here.” Merlin sighed.
There was a pause.
“Merlin, are you still there?”
“Go to sleep, Arthur.”
He wasn’t sure how he had got there but what Arthur did know, as he sat up, was that he was nowhere near Camelot.
Long spears stuck out of the ground, ragged flags flying from some of them in the cold night air. Bodies of dead knights lay everywhere, piled among their also dead foes. A few crows picked at the carcasses while others circled in the air, cawing with menacing voices.
The freezing air bit him as Arthur climbed to his feet and stared around at the battle that had long since finished.
Why had there been a fight? There wasn’t any war going as far as Arthur knew.
Suddenly he heard a noise – a quiet coughing whimper from behind a heap of corpses.
Someone was still alive!
Arthur quickly made his way around the carcases to discover a horrible sight.
There was Merlin, lying in a pool of his own blood that had stained his clothes, and a sword embedded in his stomach. As the prince stood there in utter shock and horror Merlin coughed again and caught sight of him.
“Arthur?” He whispered; his eyes glazed with pain.
Arthur took a moment to react, paralysed with dismay. Once he had regained the ability to think he stumbled over to his friend’s side, kneeling down on the blood smeared grass and pulling Merlin’s cold body into his arms while the boy struggled to breath.
“What happened? What are you doing here?” Arthur asked, eyes wide, “What am I doing here?”
“Had to fight…” Merlin croaked, “Had to save Camelot…”
There was a silence that was only interrupted by the occasional caw of a crow and Merlin’s irregular pained breath, which broke Arthur’s hear to listen to.
“I’m going to die” Merlin rasped.
“No, no you’re not going die!” The prince said quickly.
He looked at the sword stuck fast in Merlin’s stomach and reached to pull it out but his friend grabbed his arm with a bloody hand.
“Leave it, Arthur. There’s nothing you can do.”
“I wont let you die!”
“You’ve been a good friend to me, Arthur,” Merlin whispered, “but you need to let me go.”
“No, no I won’t. I can’t!” Arthur cried, grabbing Merlin’s hand, as it went limp on his arm, “No! Don’t leave me!”
Arthur stared into the unseeing eyes of his friend, shaking with grief and refusing to accept that he was gone.
“Merlin, wake up.” He whispered in a broken voice, tears swimming in his eyes as he shook the limp form in his arms, “Please, wake up.”
Those glassy blue eyes continued to stare up at the starry night sky as the prince fell upon his lost friend and sobbed uncontrollably to the night.
Arthur shot awake, tears in his eyes and shouting wildly. He struggled to breath as grief strangled him.
Before he knew what he was doing his eyes were suddenly open and that blinding white-hot light flared into the room. But it was different to before – more like a long sharp beam than a wave, acutely focused on one point.
That one point was Merlin’s arm. The young warlock had been standing in his bedroom doorway, keeping an eye on the prince, when suddenly Arthur had jerked awake, screaming. His eyes had suddenly opened and Merlin saw the scorching light shooting out towards him. He raised an arm to protect his eyes but the searing heat melted right through his forearm in a matter of seconds…