The Other Other White Meat

Summary: Written for the gwaine-quest prompt "Zombie pheasants"; Merlin and Gwaine were alone in the woods when the screeching began.

"What was that?" Merlin asked nervously. The horses skittered a few steps from the tree they were tied to when the strange noises in the forest began growing in volume. It was supposed to be a simple trip to gather herbs and other ingredients for Gaius, and Gwaine happily offered to accompany Merlin when it looked like the excursion might run overnight. They had set up camp and were sitting around a small fire, warming their hands from the chilly air. They settled on the ground, chatting about nothing in particular when the first sounds filtered through the trees.

Gwaine narrowed his eyes, trying to see into the darkening forest and pinpoint the sounds. "Pheasants?" he said, trying to lighten the mood, but the joke fell flat as the screeching drew closer, faster.

Merlin looked down at the flames in front of them. "Do you think we should put the fire out? Maybe the light is drawing whatever that is to us."

"I'd like to see what I'm fighting, personally," Gwaine said. "If it's going to attack us, it's going to do so regardless of the light or not." Merlin frowned but nodded. Gwaine grabbed his sword from where it had been resting by his side and gripped it tightly. "Maybe it won't attack us at all," he said hopefully.

Merlin opened his mouth to reply, but before any words could escape he was cut off by a loud screech to their right. It was accompanied by the sound of breaking twigs and thumping steps; whatever it was, it was almost upon them. Gwaine shot to his feet and raised his sword. His eyes darted between the openings in the trees as more and more thumps and yells approached. "I'm sorry I don't have a weapon for you, my friend," he called over to Merlin.

Merlin glanced around the campsite and grabbed the small branch he had been prodding the fire with. "It's alright," he called back. "I'm good with wood." He grimaced at Gwaine's cheeky look and felt compelled to mumble, "Not what I meant..." in response.

A branch snapped on the edge of the clearing and Gwaine raised his sword just in time to defend himself as something crashed through a bush and came running at him. The sword speared the creature that had rushed him, and Gwaine stared at it with wide eyes.

"Is that actually a pheasant?" Merlin said, his voice full of surprise and disbelief.

"I think so," Gwaine's voice was unsure. "But what's wrong with its face?" As he spoke, the seemingly dead pheasant lifted its mangled head and squawked at them through a broken beak. It thrashed on the sword that was still piercing its stomach, wrenching itself free.

Gwaine shouted in surprise. He pulled his sword up in front of himself defensively and scrambled backwards, desperate to put space between himself and the creature that refused to succumb to what was clearly a fatal wound. Merlin grabbed his shoulders when he was close enough, huddling them together. The injured pheasant hadn't been alone, and its cries seemed only to heighten the draw to their location. Merlin pressed tight against Gwaine when a dozen other pheasants, each as mottled and disgusting as the first, arrived at their campsite.

The fire's glow sent flashes of light flickering on the creatures, sinking into cavernous wounds and reflecting off the blood and saliva dripping from crevasses in their mottled beaks. Some of their feathers had obviously been violently plucked from their bodies and what feathers remained were torn and broken. Their calls no longer resembled soft cooing but instead displayed the same mad anger reflected in their eyes.

Gwaine blanched at the tattered remains of human clothing tangled in some of their feet. They had attacked before and won, and were still ready to fight again despite carrying wounds that should have killed them long before, and probably had. Gwaine prepared himself for the worst, shakily telling Merlin, "Stay behind me, and when you get the chance to, run."

Merlin spoke from behind Gwaine's shoulder. "I can help you fight!"

"It's dead, Merlin, it has to be. Dead and still coming for more. And you don't have but a stick to defend yourself." Gwaine turned his head to look Merlin in the eye. "I'll do my best to protect you." A squawk alerted him and he quickly turned back, slashing his sword just in time to hit an attacking pheasant. It was a good hit, cutting right through an outstretched wing and severing it. The bird screamed in pain and outrage, but kept moving.

"It's not infallible!" Merlin called. Gwaine shot him a confused look and he continued, "It couldn't become this on its own. Something had to make it this way. If it was made, it can be unmade, Gwaine."

Gwaine wasn't so sure, but any hope at that moment was worth hanging on to. He roared right back in response to the pheasants and charged at them armed with only his trusty old sword and Merlin's words. He slashed at the bouquet with a fervor, furiously throwing his arms and legs out as well to hit at them with all the resources he possessed. Blood spewed around him and in his rush he didn't know if any of it might be his, there was no time. A moment's slowing would give the creatures the chance to overcome him. They were fast, so fast for all their injuries.

He struck one in the torso and it charged at him, impaling itself further onto his sword and rendering it unusable. Gwaine pushed at it with his foot, desperate to free his weapon when he heard the now unmistakable battle cry of a bird right behind him. Scared thoughts flashed quickly through his mind; he would never be able to dodge in time and his sword was still trapped, he would be eaten alive by the diseased birds, Merlin would be next...

"Adéadian!" Merlin's voice held a ferocious tone that struck silence into the battle and echoed loudly throughout the surrounding forest.

Gwaine used the momentary stall to his advantage, finally freeing his sword and turning to the bird behind him. With a might blow and loud cry, he severed the pheasant's head from its scrawny neck. The head fell almost slowly to ground, air whistling through the holes, and landed with a light sound on the soft earth. The body crumpled next to it and did not move.

Gwaine stared amazed at the pheasant; dead, finally dead. His wide eyes found Merlin's. Merlin began stuttering out explanations but Gwaine didn't hear a word of them. "Take off the head!" He shouted.

Back to the battle, one down and twelve to go. Gwaine had a mission now. This Godless creature could be killed and he knew how. He struck with precision, one head, two heads, three. Behind him he could hear Merlin's voice, "Ceorfan," yelling at the pheasants that had turned to attack him. Much sooner than Gwaine had expected when the fight began, it was over. He had struck down six pheasants and Merlin had taken down seven with his magic.

Gwaine panted trying to catch his breath. He sat heavily on a log near their campfire and let the events sink in. Merlin sat cautiously next to him. Gwaine turned to him. "So. I guess you didn't need me to protect you after all."

"Gwaine," Merlin said with a sad voice, "I'm sorry."

"For what, saving my life?" Gwaine's voice was surprisingly light hearted. He gave a small chuckle. "Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"

"Magic's illegal! I didn't...well I didn't know how you felt about it. I thought maybe we could get through this without magic," Merlin explained.

Gwaine replied, "Merlin, I thought we were going to die at first. I expected it. I've never seen anything like this; what iwere/i they? What happened to them?"

"A reanimation spell, undoubtedly, probably encased in an object. But you saw how rabid they were. He likely activated the object and became their first victim. I imagine it was his first attempt gone wildly wrong; few sorcerers would be careless enough to use such a spell."

Gwaine exhaled loudly. "No more then, right? If he's dead?"

"Right," Merlin agreed. "At least, if that's what happened. He isn't alive to put more energy into the object, so it would just stop working. I hope."

"I hope so too," Gwaine said. "But maybe I should just stick close by you for a while, just in case." Gwaine scooted down the log, gathering closer to Merlin. Merlin blushed and leaned into his touch. "Thank you for saving me, Merlin."

Merlin gave a wide, embarrassed smile. "Thank you for not being scared of me," he said softly.

Gwaine tilted his head to Merlin's, catching his gaze. "I'm just glad we were together." His body was flying high from the battle and full of desire for the man next to him. Merlin leaned in. Their breath brushed each other's mouths.

Then the screeching began again.

Continued author's notes: Adéadian, paralyze. Ceorfan, cut. Bouquet, group of pheasants. Fast zombies do exist!