“No, absolutely not.”
It had become something of a tradition for Merlin to have a bit of a hysterical fit about the unfairness of having to save the kingdom before dashing off to save the kingdom.
Gaius nodded sagely and waited for the boy to calm down.
“The afancs, the griffins, and the questing beasts were one thing; but an army of the dead--”
“Zombies,” Gaius interrupted, but Merlin wasn't about to let a little thing like conversation get in the way of good bit of histrionics and shouting.
“--Army of the dead swarming up from underneath the castle. And about that; with the dungeons, the wine cellars, the hidden tunnels, the buried treasure, the dragon and, oh, the great big army of dead people, how has this castle not fallen down yet!?”
“Extremely clever architecture,” answered Gaius. “And the creatures are called zombies.”
Gaius was reading from the book that he always consulted before he came out with phrases like “cranial bleeding.” It was entitled Ye Olde Book of Anachronisms. Merlin had tried to read it once. It seemed to be mostly about tomatoes.
Merlin's ire faded, as it always did when faced with the book. “I suppose I'd better go and save Arthur. The great idiot's probably getting his brain eaten as we speak.”
“It's funny that you should mention that...” Gaius began, but Merlin was already out the door and away, so Gaius settled for shouting, “Remember to barricade that door from the outside!” at his retreating back.
Arthur was in full mail and armour, including his helmet. The helmet was currently being gnawed by something that had been the butcher from the town before he'd died of the pox last spring.
Arthur stabbed him through the heart for the fourth time on the off chance he'd remember to die this time. But he ignored the sword and kept trying to chew his way through Arthur's helmet. Arthur stabbed him one more time on the grounds that in a fair and proper world things stabbed by Arthur would die.
This was not a fair and proper world. Arthur sighed and looked around at his knights. Sir Mark had chopped the legs off of something that looked like it might once have been a woman; the thing was still trying to bite Mark's ankles. Sir Leon had given up on stabbing and was beating one of the creatures about the top of the head with the hilt of his sword. The creature was getting slightly shorter but no less alive.
Arthur looked carefully over his shoulder to make sure that Uther wasn't in earshot. “Er, retreat?”
Uther paced up and down the throne room. He couldn't sit down because his throne was being used to barricade the doors against the hoards of hungry undead.
“It's sorcery. It's sorcery. I tell you it's sorcery.”
“Your powers of observation never cease to surprise me, sire,” said a servant, taking advantage of the fact that the king was distracted by the zombie apocalypse to get away with a bit of back-chat.
Morgana was not a morning person. If you listened to Arthur, she wasn't an afternoon or evening person, either.
Gwen shook Morgana's shoulder and urgently whispered, “Wake up, my lady! The dead have risen.”
Morgana's response was to mumble, “Not today, thank you,” roll over, and go back to sleep.
Gwen had always had slightly more leeway in her behaviour than other servants and this was, after all, an emergency. She pinched Morgana and shouted into her ear, “Morgana, wake up! There are corpses walking the hallways trying to eat people's brains. It'll take two of us to move the wardrobe in front of the door, so get up!”
Morgana blinked owlishly up at Gwen. “There's no need to shout,” she said.
The hallways were absolutely infested with zombies. One of them lunged at Merlin; his eyes flashed gold and a portrait of King Ulrich the Completely Barking flew off the wall and clattered the zombie around the head. Merlin edged around the creature while it attempted to disentangle the picture frame from its neck.
He found Arthur and some of his knights up on the battlements. The knights were firing crossbow bolts down at the zombies in the courtyard below, more to make themselves feel useful than for the negligible effect it had on the zombies.
Arthur looked distraught. He'd never found himself in a situation that couldn't be resolved by stabbing things before. He was all but cuddling his sword.
“Merlin, how have you not had your brain eaten yet?”
“Never mind. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”
“Arthur, do you know where the girls are?”
“Girls?” said Arthur, still hugging his sword.
Merlin sighed. Sometimes he worried about Arthur; it was all that time he spent wrestling with the knights. “Yes, because Gwen should have arrived for work before this started, but I can't get anywhere near Morgana's chambers because there are too many zombies in the way.”
Arthur's eyes lit up with purpose and he thrust his sword above his head. “Yes, we must save Guinevere!” He lowered his sword slightly, cleared his throat and said, “And, uh, Morgana, obviously.”
And with that Arthur strode off muttering something that sounded to Merlin like, “Let's see Lancelot get there first this time.”
Of course, it wasn't Gwen's place to question, and as a noblewoman Morgana had certain standards to keep up, but she had always wondered why Morgana needed such an obscene number of dresses. The answer was now abundantly clear: because it meant she had to have a huge oak wardrobe, which between them they'd managed to shove in front of the door to keep the zombies out.
“Do you think we should push the bed over as well?” Gwen asked.
“Oh, hang on a second.” Morgana got down on her hands and knees and half crawled under the bed.
Gwen frowned. She really didn't think hiding under the bed was an especially helpful thing to do in the current situation, and she was about to say as much when Morgana emerged with a cry of “Ha!” and a sword in her hand. And not just any sword. It was Prince Arthur's sword, Prince Arthur's favourite sword. Arthur had spent a solid month tearing the castle apart looking for it when it had gone missing.
“That's Arthur's sword.”
“So it is,” said Morgana, feigning innocence, poorly.
“Fancy it ending up under your bed.”
“Yes, fancy that.”
With a great deal of effort, they managed to shove Morgana's bed against the door. Just then there was a thump on the door, followed by another. Both girls started, then Morgana hefted the sword and stepped in front of Gwen.
From outside they could just make out the sounds of a scuffle, and if they hadn't barricaded the entrance with every item of furniture Morgana owned they would have been able to make out the following argument:
“They've barricaded the bloody door!”
“Of course they've barricaded the door, there are zombies everywhere.” Merlin gestured to the corridor which was full of groaning zombies, most of them were searching for their limbs which had been hacked off. This was what happened to you when you got in the way of Arthur's quest to rescue a damsel in distress.
Arthur harrumphed and tried to shoulder the door down. He came away with a bruised shoulder and immediately tried again. “Stop that,” said Merlin, “they probably think you're one of the zombies trying to break the door down.”
“What do you suggest, Merlin, knocking politely?”
On the other side of the door Gwen and Morgana heard a very polite rap at the door and Merlin's voice saying, “Hello? Gwen? Lady Morgana? It's me, Merlin, I'm not a zombie.” There was another impatient thump at the door. “Arthur's with me. Could you let us in, please?”
Morgana looked in dismay at the pile of large and heavy furniture they'd barricaded the door with. “They could always climb in the window?” Gwen's look said it all. “I'll take that as a no then.”
They got all the furniture away from the door and admitted Merlin and Arthur. When he was thirteen Arthur had been given a very traumatic talking to from Uther about the impropriety of spying on Morgana through a keyhole when she was dressing for bed, so it took him less than a second to realise Morgana was still in her nightgown and start staring fixedly at the ceiling. Merlin had just enough time to see that Morgana was wearing a nightgown and carrying a sword, and that Gwen was giving him a little wave before Arthur grabbed his jaw and jerked it ceilingward.
“I trust you are both uninjured?”
“Yes, thank you for asking, sire.”
Arthur risked looking down long enough to aim a dopey smile at Gwen. Then he noticed what Morgana was holding. “Hey, that's my sword!”
“No, it isn't,” said Morgana, attempting to hide the sword behind her back.
“I think I know what my own sword looks like. I looked all over the castle for that!”
“No, you didn't,” said Merlin.
“I had Merlin looking all over the castle for that!”
The argument continued in that vein. So Gwen was the only one who noticed a zombie, which had made it through Arthur's rampage with all its limbs intact, clambering over the remains of the barricade and lunging in their direction. She snatched the sword from Morgana's hand and took a wild swipe at the zombie. Her swing connected with the zombie's neck, its body thudded to the ground and remained motionless as its head rolled away under Morgana's bed.
“Is it dead?” Arthur asked. “I think it's dead. Merlin, check if it's dead.”
Reluctantly, Merlin edged towards the body and nudged it with the toe of his boot. Encouraged by the fact that it didn't immediately leap up and throttle him to death, he gave it a bit of a kick. “Dead,” he announced.
Arthur gave a victory whoop. “Beheading kills them! Guinevere, you found out how to kill them!”
Morgana pulled Gwen into a hug, and as soon as Morgana had released her Merlin twirled her round in his arms. Arthur desperately wanted to hug Gwen but couldn't, and he wasn't even supposed to be looking at Morgana when she was dressed like that. He settled for clapping Merlin manfully on the shoulder. Merlin winced and rubbed his shoulder, then took advantage of Arthur's momentary angst about Gwen to hug Morgana without the prince noticing.
“We must tell the knights how to kill the creatures,” Arthur declared, marching out of the room. Merlin, Gwen and Morgana exchanged shrugs and followed him.
They had barely reached the first staircase when they heard the shuffling sounds of a pack of zombies come to investigate the commotion. They looked at the thirty zombies packed into the corridor and considered their arsenal: two swords, Arthur's helmet (slightly dented) and Merlin. In the face of that even Arthur had to concede defeat, and the four of them scampered up the stairs.
Halfway up, Morgana turned. On the wall, just in front of the advancing zombies, was a torch set perilously close to some drapes and she thought, well, her newly discovered powers had to be good for something other than small acts of accidental arson. She concentrated; and the flames leapt up. The drapes caught, and as one the zombies shied back.
She turned to see Merlin a few steps above her giving her a big grin and two thumbs up. Very subtle. She grabbed his hand and pulled him up the stairs after Arthur and Gwen.
“It's the baker in the village,” she hissed to him before they were within earshot of the others.
“He cast the spell to raise the dead. I saw it in a dream.”
“Why haven't you told Arthur?”
“When should I have told him? After I told him I can start fires with my mind, but before he had my head cut off?”
“Arthur wouldn't...” Merlin trailed off. He was certain Arthur wouldn't hand either him or Morgana over to the executioner. He was almost certain. Almost probably certain. “I'll think of something to tell him.”
After they'd made their way to the battlements, and Arthur had instructed his knights that the creatures could be killed by beheading, Merlin left Gwen and Morgana sitting on the wall and sidled over to Arthur. “Er, Arthur, can I have a quick word?”
Merlin proceeded to tell Arthur that he'd heard a rumour from Sally the kitchen girl, who'd heard it from Gretchen the chambermaid, who'd heard it from Jack the stable lad, who was courting her, didn't Arthur know, lovely couple. Anyway, Jack had heard it from Tom the squire--
“Get on with it, Merlin!”
--that the baker from the town was a sorcerer with the power to raise the dead and did Arthur think that there was the teeniest, tiniest possibility that he had something to do with today's events.
Arthur frowned, and then did what he always did in times of confusion: shout at Merlin. Merlin was treated to five straight minutes of Arthur yelling about Merlin keeping important information from him. After which, Arthur declared that he was going to deal with this sorcerer. Morgana declared that she wasn't staying behind because if she did someone was bound to take her rather marvellous sword away and send her somewhere safe where she'd miss all the fun; Gwen said that she was going if Morgana was. And Merlin, who would have quite liked to stay behind, decided that he'd better go along or else Arthur would get eaten by zombies, or killed by an evil sorcerer, or any of the million and one things that could happen to him if Merlin wasn't there.
Merlin had once made a list of all the ways Arthur could die when Merlin wasn't around; he had nightmares about it.
Getting out of the castle proved more difficult than they had expected, the front gate being eight deep in zombies. They settled on getting out through the kitchens. There weren't many zombies down there, mainly because the staple diet of your average zombie was brains, and the castle cooks put everything into their stew except brains.
Arthur was in full armour and carrying his sword, Morgana was still wearing her diaphanous nightgown and carrying Arthur's better sword, and Gwen was armed with a meat cleaver she'd picked up from a kitchen table.
Merlin was carrying a ladle Arthur had shoved at him when he'd taken the other meat cleaver away, saying it was for Merlin's own good.
“You shouldn't be carrying that,” said Arthur, who'd apparently appointed himself armourer-in-chief. Merlin looked up to see that Arthur was addressing Morgana. He wondered if Arthur would try to give Morgana a ladle, and if she would set Arthur's hair on fire if he did.
“Why not?” demanded Morgana.
“One, because it's inappropriate; and two, because it's mine.” Arthur lunged for Morgana, and there ensued a brief scuffle which ended with Arthur carrying two swords and Morgana carrying a wooden spoon. Morgana dived after Arthur, who ducked behind Merlin.
This meant that Morgana bodily collided with Merlin, which, from Merlin's point of view, wasn't entirely unpleasant.
It was at this point that Gwen, as Camelot's sole Sensible Person, felt bound to intervene.
“Stop. Okay, Arthur, give Morgana one of the swords.”
Arthur looked mournfully at both his swords before finally handing the slightly less shiny one to Morgana.
“Morgana, give Merlin your wooden spoon.”
She did so. Now Merlin had a ladle and wooden spoon and felt well prepared to deal with any dangerous soups that might attack.
Looking down at his collection of cutlery, Merlin said, “What am I supposed to do if we run into any zombies?”
“Hang on.” Arthur darted ahead and when he came back everything went dark in Merlin's world. This was because Arthur had put a pot over his head. “So the zombies can't get at your brains. It's not as though you have enough of them to spare.”
“And now I can't see. Wonderful.”
They eventually emerged from the kitchens and made their way down into the town. Arthur strode ahead, beheading any zombies that came into range. He enjoyed hacking and slashing almost as much as stabbing. Merlin had taken to wearing his pot at a jaunty angle because it made Gwen and Morgana laugh.
When they reached the bakery and pushed their way inside, they found the baker curled up on the floor crying his eyes out. Next to him was a glowing red stone.
Arthur held his sword to the man's neck. “Undo this enchantment, sorcerer.” This only caused the man to cry harder.
Merlin frowned, “Has that ever actually worked?”
“I didn't mean it. Honest, I didn't, sire,” the man sniffled. “It was my Mary, my wife--she died last winter and the man said this stone would bring her back. I never meant this to happen.”
“What man?” Merlin asked kindly.
“I don't know. He was a customer; he sold me that stone.”
“How do you undo the spell, sorcerer?” demanded Arthur, who'd only ever been taught the shout-the-same-questions-over-and-over-again approach to dealing with hysterical wizards.
“I don't know. I've been trying all morning.”
“What if we break the stone?” suggested Merlin.
“Don't be so stupid, Merlin, as if it's going to be that simple.”
Morgana, who hadn't found the time to put on a proper dress but had found the time to put on some very scary, pointy boots, slammed her heel down on the stone and ground it to dust.
Gwen, looking out the window, gasped and exclaimed, “Come over here!”
In the street the zombies were stopping in their tracks and collapsing to the ground, harmless, and fairly gross, dead bodies.
Arthur marched back over to the baker, who was still crying on the floor. “Get up, I'm arresting you for breaching the laws of Camelot.”
“No, sire, please. I've children, they'll be all alone.”
“Arthur, come on, he'll be executed,” objected Merlin.
“Be reasonable, Arthur,” said Morgana.
“I've no choice,” replied Arthur.
“Arthur,” said Gwen in a small voice, “you heard him, he was tricked.” She paused and swallowed the lump in her throat. “He's got children. There must be some other punishment.”
Arthur sheathed his sword and said to the baker, “I'll be watching you.”
He scrambled to his feet. “Yes, sire. Thank you, sire.”
“And you can provide us with some breakfast.”
“At once, Your Very Royal Majesty.”
This cheered Arthur up immensely. He'd never been called his very royal majesty before; he could grow to like it. In fact, that was how he was going to make Merlin address him from now on.
While the baker scrambled around preparing them a meal, Arthur turned to the other three. “After we've dined we'll return to the castle and release my father from the throne room. Then Morgana can put some proper clothes on, Guinevere can ensure that Morgana puts some proper clothes on, and Merlin”--Arthur said Merlin's name with a certain amount of relish-- “Merlin can help remove the bodies from the castle courtyard.”