A Cursed Headache
Merlin rubbed his head, making a face. Arthur had once again thrown something at him (this time a helmet) and he had a huge lump in the spot where it had initially struck him. He knew Arthur wouldn’t really hurt him on purpose, and he didn’t want to tell Arthur, but his head was pounding and he felt as if he was going to collapse.
As Merlin walked on with an ever-slowing pace, to the other side of the tower where he could consult Gaius. And when he began to stumble, his vision going blurry and his head throbbing, he knew something was wrong. Something much worse than a helmet blow to the head.
He was found by Arthur, who was on his way dinner to see Guinevere and some of the knights. Merlin was curled up against the stone wall of the castle, unnervingly still. At first, Arthur thought he was just upset that he had gotten a helmet thrown at him at a fairly high speed, but when he went in to shove his shoulder, he noticed how still Merlin was.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked incredulously at first, in case he was awake, but Merlin didn’t move an inch. “Merlin?” Arthur inquired again, this time louder, with just a hint of worry. When Merlin stayed curled up against the wall, Arthur turned him over, took one look at his pale face and limp body, and picked him up. He ran to Gaius’ chambers.
“Gaius!” Arthur bellowed, a strong sense of urgency in his voice as he burst through the wooden door.
Gaius turned around from what he was doing (concocting a potion for the cook’s daughter; she had fallen ill). He immediately put down the vial and rushed to Merlin’s side on the bed meant for patients, where Arthur had already laid him down. “What happened, Arthur?” Gaius asked straight away, while checking his pulse.
“I don’t know.” Arthur had his hand on his head, and was pointedly staring away from Merlin’s pale, skinny frame lying on the bed. “I-I did throw a helmet at his head, I think I struck him quite hard...” He could not bare to even take a fleeting look at his loyal manservant, the boy who had been brave and kind to him, his best friend.
Gaius raised an eyebrow, but did not comment. “His pulse is weak. Whatever it was, I strongly doubt it was all from one single blow to the head.” Arthur sighed in relief, but it did not quell his worries.
Guinevere and Sir Gwaine burst into the room, looking anxious. “What happened?” Gwaine interrogated loudly, rushing up to his King. As Arthur explained the situation, both men became solemn and their voices hushed, as if they were already at Merlin’s deathbed.
Guinevere was already at Merlin’s side, her eyes brimming with tears. “Will he be alright?” She tearfully asked Gaius, who was monitoring his heart and checking the pulse again. Gaius didn’t respond, but his expression was not one of a hopeful man.
They all stayed by his side, waiting for his eyes to flutter, for his breath to hitch, for his pulse to at least become stronger, but his condition gradually worsened as the moon traveled across the sky.
Guinevere was fretting in the corner, hugging her knees to her chest. She had changed out of her dinner attire and into a shirt and trousers, only leaving Merlin’s side because Arthur had promised to stay with him and let her know if anything new happened while she was gone, which, of course, didn’t.
Arthur came over and wrapped his arms around her small, sad, curled up body, and let her rest her head on his broad shoulder. Her voice was watery and cracking. “I - I just want him to be alright. He - he’s one of my b-best friends!” As she started to really cry, she dug her face into Arthur’s chest as he let down his head and let one tear fall down his cheek.
Gwaine had gone down and told Leon and Percival the news, and they had all come back up to the tower and were quietly conversing with Gaius. Every now and then one of the three would go and assist Gaius with a simple task, like getting water or collecting supplies. Each had a look of sympathy and deep sadness written on their faces as they heated up a cloth or brought up some water from the square.
As the night progressed, the endless night, each of them fell into a hopeless silence. The only noise that filled the room was the sound of quiet breaths from each of Merlin’s pre-mourners, and the straggling breaths of poor Merlin’s lungs trying to stay alive for a little while longer.
At around 3:00, Arthur tried convinced Guinevere to go to sleep, but she would not listen. “You should at least eat something, Gwen. We don’t want you to fall ill too.” She nodded a bit, and soon found some bread to pick through.
Arthur soon walked forward to Gaius, sick of the waiting. “Have you figured out what is wrong yet?”
Gaius nodded. “I have narrowed it down. I believe someone, possibly Morgana, has cursed him. His symptoms are unique; I have no scientific reason to believe that anything is wrong with him, yet here he is. It is the only conclusion.”
Arthur was troubled, and he kept his voice in a low tone. “What does this, eh, curse entail?”
Gaius sighed and spoke quietly. “I believe that is slowly weakens the victim, causing their heart, lungs, and brain to slow down, and, eventually, they will all fail and the victim will be dead.” The thought brought a terrible sadness over Gaius’ old features, a harbinger of grief and despair. He lowered his head.
“It is possible that he could have had this curse for about a week now. It takes time to really take effect, and he would never had noticed. The only thing that could have worsened his condition is a strong blow to the head.” Gaius brought his head up again, a guilt-tripped but non-judgmental gesture.
Arthur looked pointedly down again, bringing his hand to his head and the other down to Merlin’s wrist. When he did find a pulse, it was weak. So weak, in fact, it was as if it wasn’t there at all.
The revelation of how truly serious Merlin’s condition was a bucket of ice-cold water to the face, a cruel call to reality. Arthur’s eyes brimmed with tears, as Gwen’s had earlier, but he swallowed his pain and looked back up at Gaius’ solemn face.
“Is- is there nothing we can do?”
Gaius shook his head, unable to bring himself to speak, but the message was clear: Merlin would be dead before the next day.
The castle was dark, as expected at such an early time, and also silent. It was as if the castle itself had joined in the small, despairing party of the true friends of Emrys.
And then, the silence was disturbed by a small sound. The sound of a hitch in someone’s weak breath, the sight of fluttering eyelids that had been closed for what everyone thought would be forevermore, and a tiny, “Help me.”