In a Fairy Ring by Demon Faith
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Story Notes:
CONTINUITY: Futurefic – Arthur is King, Guinevere is Queen, Round Table is Round
SPOILERS: Up to 1x11: Labyrinth of Gedref
NOTES: Written for Merlin the Elf challenge.
For Suaine – I hope there's enough dancing! Merry Christmas!
"I propose a siege."

Arthur leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, resisting the urge to role his eyes. Whatever the situation, one could always rely on Gareth to suggest a siege.

"We stocked the cellars only last month!" Kay said, waving his goblet. "They have supplies to last the winter."

"Then, a siege is not an option," Arthur said tiredly. "What else do we have?"

There were mutterings around the table, as discussion broke out. Arthur let this continue for some time, pretending preoccupation with the blueprints in front of him. In reality, he was considering whether he could lure Merlin up to the battlements for spiced mead and cooked goose. He knew Gwen had plans for the evening and he'd made sure Merlin's chambers were just as sumptuous as his own – yes, this was a very satisfying plan.

And, unfortunately, would not help them retake his northern castle.

"My liege?"

He looked up, smiling at his youngest knight. "Speak, Geraint."

"If we approach from the river…well, they don't have defences on that side. We could decimate their archers before attempting the walls."

Arthur nodded – the idea certainly had merit. He found the river on the blueprints and started considering where they could launch the boats.

"The river is high from the heavy rainfall," Morholt warned and Arthur acknowledged him with a nod.

"Merlin will hold the boats steady," he said, frowning. Though that would put his love rather too close to the fighting, and Merlin had never really learned to wield his sword. Hmm…they would have to negotiate that (which, he thought ruefully, meant he would surrender to the assault of Merlin's lips and forget exactly what they were arguing about in the first place).

"We'd have to wait for-"

Kay was interrupted by the door crashing open. Arthur stood, drawing his sword, as Lancelot stumbled into the room and promptly fell to the floor.

He was beside him in a heartbeat, sword clattering on the stone as he turned him over and shook his shoulder. "Lancelot!"

"Arthur…" the man mumbled. Arthur tensed – it must be bad news if Lancelot was using his given name in public. "Merlin…she took him…"

"Who? Who took him?" Arthur said desperately and Lancelot coughed; blood trickled from his mouth.

"The Fae Queen. We were in the clearing, the one by the river, and Merlin stepped into the fairy ring…"

"Of course he did," Arthur muttered darkly.

"I tried to follow him, but…they threw me out." Lancelot smiled weakly. Arthur shook his head.

"You did well, Lancelot." Arthur waved to one of his court attendants. "Take Sir Lancelot to the physician – and send word to the Queen."

"No!" Lancelot seized his arm, coughing again. "I will come with you."

"You will rest," Arthur said firmly. "I have brave knights enough." His voice dropped as he smiled. "And Gwen would never forgive me."

Lancelot's smile mirrored his, and he nodded in acquiescence. Arthur stood quickly and turned to his knights – they were all stood in rank, waiting for his order.

"I will need four of you," he said and they all stepped forward. He smiled.

"Gareth, Geraint, Kay, Morholt – with me. The rest of you take guard duty, two of you with the Queen at all times. Am I understood?"

"Sire," they said in unison, and he nodded, motioning for his chosen four to follow him to the armoury.

"Our strategy is a simple one: we will attempt reason with the Fae Queen and, when that fails, we will use force. If single combat is required, it is my battle – I will accept no protests."

The horses were ready upon their arrival at the stables – news travelled fast in Camelot. He thanked the hands and rechecked his tack before mounting his favourite warhorse. Checking that the others were ready, he bent low and whispered in the animal's ear, "Terrwyn, Merlin's in danger. Use all your haste."

The horse whinnied and broke into a canter, guided by the gentle nudge of Arthur's knees and his palpable fear. He had seen many battles in his time, but just a hint of danger to Merlin, and he was back at his first combat, mouth dry with anticipation and sword too heavy in his hand.

Merlin could not keep himself out of trouble. If he was not falling down ravines, he was causing diplomatic incidents. And that was before one even counted the magical trouble he seemed to find for himself on a near-daily basis – Arthur had lost count of the number of times he'd entered his chambers to find Merlin sending some creature or other back to the dark dimension from whence it came.

And yet Arthur was still greeted with panic whenever Merlin didn't come home on time or ended up at the mercy of brigands or demons or fairy queens. Because one day he might not come back – and Arthur knew he wouldn't be able to live without him.

As the horses approached the clearing, they grew nervous and slowed to a trot. Soon, they would not move at all, and Arthur reluctantly dismounted, motioning for the others to do the same. Securing Terrwyn to a branch, he drew his sword and crept forward, trusting his knights to match his progress. The trees parted and a beautiful clearing spread before them, the river singing not five paces away.

And there, in the centre, stood the fairy ring.

Of course Merlin wouldn't be able to resist such a thing – he was nothing if not insatiably curious. Arthur carefully laid his sword across the palms of his hands and stepped up to the edge of the ring.

"I, Arthur Pendragon, seek an audience with the Fae Queen!"

The circle shimmered before him, but he refused to take a step back. A woman's voice echoed across the void.

"You will enter alone!"

He had anticipated as much. Arthur turned to his men and smiled.

"Sire, you can't!" young Geraint protested, but Kay smacked him on the arm.

"Let the king speak."

Arthur nodded to Kay and then Geraint. "Wait here for my return. Either I will bring Merlin back with me or you are to carry me to Camelot. Are we clear?"

"Sire," they said, in reluctant unison. Arthur nodded, resheathed his sword and stepped into the ring.

He emerged onto a large stone dais, columns framing a raised throne at the far end. There sat a beautiful woman, long dark hair tumbling around her shoulders, but her smile was cruel.

And at her feet was Merlin.

He was lying on the stone, curled in on himself. There was a wound on his head that was bleeding sluggishly but, other than that, he looked unharmed. Merely…sleeping.

"I believe you have something that belongs to me," he said coolly. The Queen laughed.

"I believe you seek something that belongs to me, Pendragon," she said, her voice sharp in his ears.

He reined in his temper and started again. "What is the payment then? I'm not leaving without him."

The Queen smiled. "I thought you might say that."

She snapped her fingers and a row of black knights appeared behind her, in full mail, faces concealed. Arthur drew his sword.

"Eight on one," Arthur grinned wickedly. "I've had worse."

She laughed. "Oh no, Pendragon – have you heard of the carole?"

Arthur frowned. "The dance? What has that got to do with it?"

Suddenly, the knights had formed a circle around him, holding each others' wrists to make an unbreachable chain. Ah.

"They will dance the carole, and one by one, you will face them. You may even fight all eight – if you survive."

"Great," Arthur muttered, sizing them all up. It had been some time since he'd fought eight knights in a row, but he was sure he was more than capable. Merlin said he was still a fine specimen and, if anyone should have an in-depth knowledge of his musculature, it was Merlin.

"Are you ready, Pendragon?"

He adopted a defensive position and nodded. "Ready."

An eerie chanting began as the knights stamped their feet and started to spin the circle. Arthur tried to concentrate on the columns beyond to avoid dizziness, waiting for the first attack.

Abruptly, a knight stepped forward and drew his sword. Arthur quickly attacked and they matched blows, equals in strength. And then the knight's sword burst into flames.

Arthur stepped back, withdrawing his sword, then recovered quickly. She hadn't said they were magical knights!

Still, flaming sword or no, the man presumably could still be dispatched. It was just a question of agility. And Arthur had agility, oh yes.

Darting back, he swiped at the knight's arm, distracting him, before cleaving his neck from his shoulders. The body fell to the floor and vanished. One down.

The chanting grew louder and the second knight stepped forward. Arthur circled him warily, wondering what talent he would display. They stared each other down for a long minute; Arthur glanced over at Merlin – still no movement. What had she done to him?

Suddenly, he was lifted off the ground and thrown backwards. A strong gust of wind came from the knight's gauntlet, holding him back even as the other knights kept him within the circle.

"Coward," he shouted, struggling to be heard over the wind. "Face me like a warrior!"

The knight charged him, but he dodged out of the way, coming up behind him to plunge his sword under his helmet and into his spine. To stab an enemy in the back was beneath his honour, but these knights were using magic. And that definitely wasn't in the code.

"Now who will face me?" he roared, blood pumping. The thrill of combat sang in his veins, and he just wished it wasn't tempered with fear for Merlin's safety.

Another knight left the circle and did not wait for him, starting forward and striking at his arm. The blade connected and stuck, cold creeping up his arm. Ice – the blade was made of ice.

Arthur fell to his knees, his head starting to spin. S-so cold…why was it so cold? The ice spread across his shoulder and into his chest – he couldn't breathe, the air around him freezing. He could use one of Merlin's warming spells, he thought numbly.

Merlin His eyes flickered to the dais – his lover, waiting, counting on him. With effort, he knocked the sword away and staggered to his feet. Warmth flooded through him and feeling returned to his arm; he parried the knight's next swipe, desperate to keep the blade away from his skin.

A quick slice to the forearm and the knight dropped his sword. Arthur kicked him in the chest, sending him to the ground, where he stuck his blade at the knight's neck. He melted away, leaving five more in the circle.

The ice attack had left him drained but he rallied his strength, waiting for the next challenge. The price of failure was too great to let a little ice distract him.

Suddenly, a knight charged out of the circle, waving his arms. Arthur ducked out of his way, trying to get a look at him. Where was his sword? Was he trying to attack with his fists?

No…that wasn't his arm…Arthur's eyes widened, as he realised the knight had maces for hands. He rolled under the knight's arm, but the faerie recovered quickly and the mace connected with his stomach.

Winded, he held a defensive pose and tried to get his breath back, but the knight wouldn't let him rest. The chanting caused his ears to ring as his vision faded in and out – he had to fight on, he had to save Merlin…

He dodged another mace blow and tried to hit the knight's arm, but his sword glanced off the mace's spikes. Arthur realised he'd have to be cleverer than this if he wanted to defeat him. He placed himself within tantalising reach of the knight, and the faerie lunged at him, toppling himself as Arthur jumped and landed on his forearms, stabbing him in the back of the neck.

The neck made a very satisfying noise, Arthur decided, and grinned, waiting for his next challenge. "Who will be the fifth?" he roared.

A knight stepped forward and Arthur whirled to face him. He charged the faerie and ran into…nothing. Frowning, he looked up, to see a massive sword swinging for his head. He was a giant!

Arthur easily dodged the pendulum-like motion of the sword – the giant may have the advantage of size and might, but Arthur was fast. And he would need to continue avoiding the beast until he could think of a way to kill it.

As he veered left, he realised that the circle had stretched – the knights were far apart and unable to maintain a barrier, though they continued to rotate and chant at alarming speed. Arthur took note of the position of the dais, the river and the other knights and made a quick decision; with lightning speed, he sliced across the back of the giant's ankles and sprinted through his legs, towards the dais.

The giant howled and toppled forwards, his head smashing against the columns as he fell. Arthur reached the dais just in time, throwing himself over Merlin's body as the Queen looked on in bemusement.

"You have defeated only five, Pendragon. The trial is not over."

Arthur ghosted his hand across Merlin's head and checked that the masonry was intact before reluctantly stepping away from his lover. "See that no harm comes to him," he said, as he turned to face the now-silent carollers.

They stood in a line, waiting for him. Slowly, he walked towards them and they snapped into a circle around him, the chanting and dancing beginning again. He felt confined but tried to swallow down the fear, waiting for the sixth knight to identify himself.

A knight stepped forward and then vanished. Arthur felt a sharp pain in his shoulder and whirled round, only to see the knight disappear again. Another pain and his sword flashed towards it, overbalancing the knight as he faded from view once more.

"Face me," he growled, stumbling as a sword rapped at his ankles. These tactics of deceit rankled him, but he would hold his ground.

He closed his eyes and listened. There was the faint whisper of breath, and he dodged, bringing his sword up to strike his opponent's chin. Then, nothing. Arthur pivoted slowly, eyes squeezed shut, focussing on sound alone.

Another whisper and he forced his sword through the knight's mail and into his stomach, pushing it up and twisting to deliver the killing blow. He opened his eyes and saw the knight fall backwards, vanishing for the last time.

Only two left now – they stood either side of him, their eerie chanting maintaining the illusion of many. One swung in front of him and Arthur blocked the swipe, parrying the blade away.

The air shimmered and then, where there had been one knight, there were now two. Arthur blinked – had he hit his head? They both attacked at once and he managed to catch one in the stomach; the knight stumbled backwards, vanishing.

Another shimmer, and there were two knights before him. What was going on here? Arthur charged at them, but as he raised his sword, the faeries split before his eyes.

And now there were four.

With a growl, he sliced at one, felling him instantly and then rammed his sword hilt into the back of another knight's head. The two remaining knights rushed him, and he dispatched one with a quick neck-swipe before the other split.

He needed to be faster!

Gathering all his remaining strength, he rained down blows on one knight, barely giving him time to breathe, and then struck his thigh – fatal hit. The knight keeled over and disappeared, and Arthur whirled quickly, decapitating the last knight mid-split.

The contorted form fell and faded and Arthur was left to face the last challenger.

"You cannot defeat me," he said softly. The knight charged him.

They matched blows, strength equal, and when Arthur dodged, he found the other knight up against him. They danced around each other, as Arthur tried to take his measure – what was his power, his talent? And why was he holding back?

His patience thinned and he charged; their swords met in a flurry of quick blows and then broke away, circling again. He was good – he was better than good. Arthur tried not to let it bother him, probing at the knight's defences with his sword; every one was met, and met well.

It was like the knight knew his every move. Perhaps he was in his mind. Gritting his teeth, he tried his latest manoeuvre – a new untested tactic he'd been perfecting; the knight knew the counter, pushing him back towards the river.

With a burst of anger, he struck at the knight's helm and knocked it from his head.

And met his own eyes staring back at him.

Shocked, he almost failed to block the next strike, but recovered quickly. This could be…interesting. He knew his own weaknesses, after all, but then his opponent would also know how to cover them.

There was only one man who had defeated him. And he had cheated. Every time.

Distracted by his thoughts, his twin caught him off guard and tripped him, causing him to fall back and hit his head. He saw stars, and his own face swirling before him. He had to fight it. He had to save Merlin.

Arthur. Arthur – answer me!

He frowned and brought his sword up to defend himself. …Merlin?

Suddenly, his sword flared a brilliant blue and he pushed the other-Arthur away, feeling the power surge up his arm.Magic – my true weakness

Other-Arthur staggered back, almost afraid of the light, and Arthur used it to his advantage, swiping at his twin's shoulder. The sword connected and the light surged into the faerie, blue lines spreading over his skin, before he exploded in a flash of blue light.

Arthur was thrown backwards and lay still for a moment, winded. He glanced over at the dais, to see his lover staring at him, hand outstretched, and giving him a shaky smile. The Queen did not look impressed.

He slowly climbed to his feet and staggered over to the dais, slowly becoming aware of his bruises and a few sword wounds that would need to be seen too. After he'd taken his Merlin home and had him checked over thoroughly.

"You cheated," the Queen said stonily.

"I won," Arthur said, grinning and she nodded tiredly, fading into the wind.

"Hello," Merlin said sheepishly, and Arthur playfully smacked his arm before gathering him into an embrace and kissing him gently; he was real, he was whole.

"What am I going to do with you?" he said, shaking his head. Merlin smiled.

"Take me home?"

"Read my mind."

Gently, Arthur hooked an arm under Merlin's legs and, supporting his shoulders, lifted him into his arms. "I can walk, you know," Merlin said, lightly. Arthur frowned.

"No, you can't," he said stubbornly. Merlin rolled his eyes.

"Fine. I am your damsel in distress. Carry me home, my prince!"

"Oh, shut up."

Arthur stepped through the shimmering circle and met the anxious faces of his knights; they relaxed into smiles at the sight of them, battered but alive.

He slid Merlin onto his horse and accepted Geraint's leg up into the saddle in front of him, hissing at the ache. "Massage when we get home," Merlin mumbled into his ear.

"Bed when we get home," Arthur said, firmly, and then his brain caught up and he blushed. "For rest."

Merlin just smiled and leaned forward, resting his head on his shoulder and slipping his arms around his waist.

Arthur thought he should seize his chance to be stern before he lost this fight. "And what have we learned, Merlin?"

"My prince will rescue me," Merlin muttered and seemed to fall asleep.

Arthur decided that, if this was losing, it really couldn't be all that bad.
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