The light disappeared as Arthur re-closed his eyes but the pain did not leave with it.
Merlin fell to his knees. He looked down at his arm.
There was a perfectly round hole there, about ten centimetres in diameter and roughly three deep. The smell of burning flesh reached Merlin’s nostrils as he stared at it with horror. The light had burned the flesh away completely and he was lucky it hadn’t gone right through his forearm.
Arthur fell off the bed and sprawled on the floor, sobbing violently, beside himself with grief; unaware that the things he had seen had been a dream. He attempted to pull himself to his feet by grabbing the bedside table but collapsed, bring the things on top of the cupboard down with him.
“What’s going on?” Gaius demanded, darting up the stairs and sweeping his gaze over the room, seeing the chaotic Arthur and Merlin who was clutching his arm whilst in a kind of shocked stupor.
“My arm…” Merlin faltered.
Arthur didn’t hear Merlin’s voice and still though him to be dead. He held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth on the floor, tears flowing freely.
“What happened?” Gaius asked, pulling Merlin to his feet and staring at the hole in his arm.
“He opened his eyes. It was the light.” Merlin told him. Suddenly the shock evaporated as the pain set in. He seized his arm and squeezed it tightly, blood running out from between his fingers and drizzling to the floor.
“I’ll get you a bandage.” Gaius announced quickly and raced away to his many surgical belongings.
Merlin ripped off his neckerchief and wrapped it around his arm to stop the blood before hurrying over to Arthur.
“Arthur, Arthur, its alright! What’s wrong?” Merlin said, grabbing the prince’s failing arms and trying to calm him down.
Arthur heard him and it took a moment to realize that it had all been a dream, but that didn’t stop joy overwhelming him in an instant.
“MERLIN!” He cried and pulled his friend into a hug that would have crushed Merlin had he been but a little skinnier, “I thought you’d died!” Arthur choked into his shoulder.
“Its okay, everything’s fine.” Merlin reassured him, gladly returning the hug.
Arthur sobbed more incoherent noises into his shoulder and began to laugh insanely.
Once he had calmed down a little, Merlin helped him back onto the bed where Arthur lay, clutching the blankets and still laughing like a maniac.
Gaius bustled in; arms heaped with bandages, and peeled the blood soaked scarf off Merlin’s arm before wrapping it up tightly with the cloth and putting it in a sling. Merlin couldn’t believe just how sore it felt but then again, having said that, holes in arms have been known to hurt.
Suddenly the door to Gaius’s workshop opened and Uther of all people came through it.
“I came for-“ The king began but broke off, seeing Arthur at the top of the stairs in the bed, “What’s he doing there?”
“Ah, Sire.” Gaius said, pulling a face, “There’s a lot to explain, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” Uther demanded, marching up the stairs towards them.
“I didn’t want to mention it to you until we knew more about the circumstances.” Gaius said as the king strolled to the bedside, “But his highness has a strange illness.”
“So, this is where he’s been hiding for the past few days. No wonder I couldn’t get hold of him.” The king muttered, not paying the slightest attention to Gaius, “Get up, boy. Thought you could escape training by pretending to be sick, did you?” He said, looming over Arthur who was blindly staring around him, eyes still closed.
“This is no hoax, Sire.” Gaius said, “There’s this cube. I fear it to have magical properties.”
The king snapped his head up at the sound of magic and his face immediately hardened.
“What are you talking about, man?” He growled.
Gaius quickly made his way into his office, grabbed the cube and came back again.
“We don’t know how or why but this has done something to Arthur.” He said, presenting the cube to the king who took it and held it into the light, staring at it analytically.
Merlin had tuned out of the conversation at this point and had once again taken his place by Arthur’s side, not entirely sure why he was there but not really caring.
“Try and get some sleep, Arthur. We’ll sort everything out.” He reassured the prince, holding his hand and rubbing his thumb over it as Arthur sunk further into the bed. Merlin watched as his face relaxed slightly. He knew someone was there for him.
Meanwhile the king stood, frown on face, trying to understand what had happened as Gaius relayed the past days to him.
“He can’t open his eyes?!” Uther exclaimed incredulously as Gaius came to that part, “Don’t be ridiculous! I’ve never heard such nonsense.” He said and grabbed Arthur’s shoulder; jerking him from the calm state he had slipped in to, “Open your eyes, boy.”
“No, that’s not a good idea.” Gaius said quickly, “Look what happened to Merlin.”
Merlin stood up, tearing his eyes away from Arthur, and held up his forearm to the king. The bandage was already dark and glistening with blood as Uther looked at it with bewilderment.
After a moment the king swallowed and ran a hand through his hair.
“What are we going to do?” He asked Gaius.
Gaius faltered and fidgeted with the hem of his sleeve, trying to think of a way to tell the king that he had no idea what was going to happen to Arthur.
“I have been conducting searches to find the origins of the cube, My Lord, but I have found nothing as of yet.” He eventually said.
“You mean he’s going to stay like this forever!”
“I-I don’t know.”
Uther growled with frustration and pinched the bridge of his nose while pacing up and down the room with one hand behind his back.
“I shall have Geoffrey of Monmouth aid you with the search.” He decided, “Will Arthur be safe here?”
“Yes.” Merlin told him absently before Gaius had time to reply, still rubbing his thumb over Arthur’s hand.
The king looked at them for a moment.
“Very well. I take my leave.” With that he sailed out of the room.
Merlin managed to get Arthur to sleep a few hours after the king had left and joined Gaius with the prodding of the cube, which was one of the most tedious and boring things ever demised but his uncle said it may help to open it further. Gaius thought that the box may have some kind of mechanism inside and if someone were to poke the right area then it would open and perhaps help their understanding of it if they knew what was inside.
Merlin yawned, stabbed the cube again with a pair of tweezers and smothered another yawn. He hadn’t slept well the previous night, as Arthur had kept shooting awake, shouting murder.
Gaius, meanwhile dubiously turned the dusty page of another book and scanned through it, hoping, like he did with the ones before it, that this page would hold the answers he needed. In truth it was not just him who needed it, and it was not just Arthur either. It was quite obvious that Merlin was extremely worried as Gaius watched him prod the cube fiercely again. The physician feared that if Arthur died from this illness that Merlin would also die of grief.
A couple of hours later – around midday – Arthur woke again and frantically called for Merlin, even though his friend was there by the bed as he’d promised he would be, having been dismissed from the cube examining.
Merlin took a few seconds to answer. What could he say, the truth or what Arthur needed to hear?
“I’m here.” Was all he said.
“I hurt you didn’t I.” Arthur’s voice sounded broken.
“I’m okay, don’t worry, it’s just a scratch.”
“You’re lying.” Arthur said, trying to sound sarcastic but finding it difficult, “I know you, Merlin, and I know your lying.”
Merlin touched the bandage on his arm. It really hurt but his heart was more wounded. The light in Arthur’s eyes would have killed him had it burnt entirely through his arm and reached his head. But looking at the prince now, blind and in more pain than anyone should have to bear, that’s what was really killing Merlin.
“Merlin, please, how many times have you said we were friends? If we are then please, tell me the truth.” Arthur persisted.
The young wizard sighed.
“Okay, I got lucky. You only hit me on the arm. I swear its nothing. Don’t worry and try to get some rest.”
Arthur reached for his hand and squeezed it hard. He felt guilty. He understood it had been an accident but couldn’t help but blame himself anyway. The prince sincerely hoped Merlin was not lying and whatever had happened to him wasn’t as bad as he’d initially thought.
“Gaius doesn’t know what to do with the cube, does he?” He said after a while.
There was a pause.
“No.” Merlin told him cautiously.
“I don’t want to die like this.”
“You’re not going to die!” Merlin snapped, “I won’t let you.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said affectionately, “You may have saved me far more times than I deserve in the past but I don’t think even you can rescue me from this.”
“Don’t be a prat.” Merlin told him quickly.”
“Let me finish.”
“I would make you the prince to take my place when I die but I think my father would have a heart attack.” Arthur tried to laugh but it instead turned into a strangled splutter.
This statement would have flattered Merlin but the thought of Arthur dieing blocked out all other emotion except a grim determination to save him.
“Why would you do that?” He asked curiously while automatically taking a glass of water off the bedside table and handing it to Arthur who took it gratefully.
“Because, Merlin, you have all the qualities a prince and future king needs. You’re kind, brave, too loyal for your own good, you care for others and well,” Arthur paused thoughtfully, “I’m sorry but I can’t give you sword skills.”
“That’s quite understandable.” Merlin laughed, remembering how useless he was with any weapon, let alone a sword.
Arthur spluttered into the glass of water as he said this.
“You’re far too modest, Merlin.” He scolded fondly, “If I live then I’m going to have to teach you the art of bragging.”
“I look forward to it.”