The frozen, rutted road was half-hidden by small snowdrifts between the high
banks and hedges. As the rider reached the crest of a ridge, he saw his
destination ahead of him across the valley. A great castle, the largest he had
seen in the West, rose up above a small town of thatched cottages. In the crisp midwinter air, the distant tolling of a bell reached him, and as if summoned, he spurred his horse again and rode down to the frozen ford in the valley bottom. His horse was sure-footed on the ice, although it was unfamiliar to them both, and beyond the river the road led up to the gate of the town. Bare, icy trees overhung the approach to the gate, and a few small birds with blood-red feathers looked forlornly out from them at the snowy fields. As he approached, the bell fell quiet again. The clinking of the rider's harness alerted the lone guard at the gate, who sprang to attention, spear in hand. Before the guard could make some inappropriate comment, the rider silently handed him a letter from his pouch. The guardsman read what he could of the letter closely, and passed it back.
"Pray enter, my lord", the sentry announced deferentially, with a tremor of surprise and mild alarm in his voice.
The rider nodded in acknowledgement, and rode through the gateway as soon as it was opened. As the unnerved guard struggled to close it again, he ascended the
sloping main street, noticing the stillness of the town. From within the pale stone houses, he could hear sounds of hurried activity, and columns of smoke rose from the crowns of their roofs into the frosty atmosphere. Walking his horse at a measured pace, he reached the top of the street and crossed the town square, where a well and a pillory showed where the local people might meet, on other days. The whole far side of the square was taken up by the curtain wall of the castle, and behind it he could see a keep, two vast halls, and many towers. One of these towers, tall and slender, with its largest windows on the uppermost floor, reminded the rider of others, now far away. The main gate of the castle was open that morning, and the rider passed through unchallenged. Inside, the broad bailey was busier than the whole of the rest of the town. Scores of stables lined one side, and all along the lower edge, to the rider's left, a long hall with a tower of its own took the place of the curtain wall. Men and women hurried to and fro across the open space in the centre, carrying bundles of sacks, baskets of produce, or fragments of steel armour. Ignoring all this, he turned to his right, to the stone keep and the thatched hall that adjoined it. At the foot of the keep's external stair, he dismounted, and spoke for the first time, to one of the men nearby. The rider's accent was low and heavy, and although he spoke clearly, the syllables seemed unfamiliar to him.
"I have come to see the king. Please take my horse, and see that no harm comes to him."
"My lord", the man said, and seized the reins as they were passed to him, clearly as struck by the handsomeness of the animal as by its curious owner.
The rider hung his round, black shield on his horse's saddlebow, and answered "Blessings be on you, sir."
He was about to ascend the stair when the man who held the reins spoke again. "If you seek the king, my lord, he is at feast in the hall", and indicated the building beside the keep.
The door of the hall opened wide, and every face at every table turned to see. In the doorway stood a tall knight, armed in mail and wearing a black surcoat
marked with a golden star and crescent. His helm and face were swathed in a white cloth, so that only the sharp tip of the helmet and the dark wells of his eyes could be seen. At his side hung a great curved sword, and in his right hand was a scroll. For a space there was no sound in the hall, and then the young king, seated with his queen on the daïs, rose to his feet to address the newcomer, in Latin.
"Welcome, sir knight. I trust you will dine with us, for today we welcome any who will civilly sit and share our meal."
The knight unwound the cloth from his mouth, revealing a handsome, dark-skinned face with a serious expression. In Latin, his speech was freer than it had been in Saxon. "Thank you, my lord. I should gladly sit with you, but I am bound firstly to present myself, as instructed by my own king." And he unrolled the scroll he carried, and began to read aloud:
"From Haroun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, to Arthur,
King of the Britons, greeting. Peace and blessing be upon you, O king! We
present to your Majesty our trusty and well-beloved knight, Abdulhamid the
Moor, being our ambassador and emissary to the lands of the far west. Whereas the fame of your Majesty's court has reached us from the words of many travellers, and wishing to establish friendship between our two kingdoms, though widely separated, we seek your Majesty's leave to establish our servant Abdulhamid in the Kingdom of the Britons, and request also in due course that your Majesty send, if you be willing, an ambassador of your own to come and reside in our court at Baghdad. We hereby guarantee safe conduct through all our lands and dominions for any such ambassador, and trust, God willing, that your Majesty will accept this mission in the peaceful spirit in which it is sent. Given by our hand at Baghdad."
Abdulhamid closed the scroll again, bowed low, and then looked directly at
Arthur. The king looked very young, with his dark hair worn short and his face
clean-shaved. His queen was fair and unveiled, and smiled easily at the newcomer. On the king's left hand, an old man in a grey robe leaned in and whispered in his ear. Arthur seemed to pause for thought a moment, and then answered:
"Welcome to Camelot indeed, then, O Abdulhamid! The fame of your royal master's court is also wide and great. We are pleased to accept your embassy. We shall send directly to inform your master, and in the fulness of time select a knight of the Round Table to undertake this quest and travel to Baghdad. And now sit, and share our Yuletide feast. We have a custom here, that my table will not dine on this day until some wonderful thing has happened. Accordingly, we had not yet begun - pray sit with us here."
"Indeed I shall, my lord. But I am still dressed for the road - I beg leave to
withdraw, and rejoin your Majesty presently."
This was agreed, and Abdulhamid withdrew to a chamber in the keep. When he
returned, half an hour later, the king and his table had only just been served, and a place had been set for their new guest. Abdulhamid was dressed in a long
cream-coloured robe, and although he had left his helm behind, still wore a cloth
bound about his head. Taking his place at one end of the table, he found himself
sitting between a black-robed man with a shaved head, and a broad-shouldered knight with long dark hair. A red-haired young man seated beyond the queen spoke.
"Sir knight, I have leave of the king to introduce his companions. I am Gawain of Orkney, son of King Lot, and this is my brother, Sir Gaheris." Gawain indicated a slightly older man beside him. "Beside you is Sir Lancelot of the Lake, and at your other hand Baldwin, the Lord Bishop of Camelot."
"I look forward to speaking with you, sir Saracen," rumbled the bishop.
"This is Prince Tristram of Lyonesse, and beside him Sir Ector of the Wild
Forest. And beside the king is Merlin -"
"I can introduce myself, Gawain", the old man said in a rolling accent. "You've failed to announce your queen. Sir Ap Alamid, meet Queen Guinevere of Cameliard, mistress of this house and wife of the king. As Gawain has said, I am Merlin. I think you might call me the Grand Vizier of this kingdom - for I have offered my advice to several kings now. Like the bishop, I look forward to talking to you at greater length - although I fancy his motives and mine differ." Merlin laughed softly, and smiled.
"Ap Alamid?" asked Lancelot, curiously.
"'Abdulhamid' is a bit much for my Celtic tongue, Lancelot", Merlin answered. "I don't know if you Franks find such mouthfuls easier, but I shall call him a Cambrian name - by your leave." With that, he nodded in slightly mocking deference to Abdulhamid.
"Have you given these knights new names as well, my lord vizier?" Abdulhamid
asked Merlin, curiously.
Gawain, rather than Merlin, answered the question. "Only some of us. He calls me
Gwalchmai. Like his own name, it means a bird of prey - 'the May Hawk'."
"I regret I do not know the Cambrian tongue, nor indeed had heard of it until I
reached these isles, Sir Gawain. Does 'ap Alamid' signify a hawk too?"
"Indeed not," put in Gaheris, speaking for the first time, "it means 'the son of
Alamid', although what Merlin means by that, I don't know."
Abdulhamid looked appalled at this. "I beg you amend it, then. Al-Hamid, in the
Arabic tongue, means the Praiseworthy One, a name of the Most High, of whom it is
written, 'May He forbid that He should beget a son!' My name means 'servant of the
Praiseworthy One', and I would not be known by the name you have chosen, even in
Bishop Baldwin bristled visibly as the Saracen spoke. It seemed he was about to
respond, but Lancelot broke in first. "Then compromise, since none here means any
harm. Merlin's Cambrian wordplay sounds ill in Latin, so let you be Palamides - a
fine heroic name, easy for all to say, and as far as I know, meaningless." Lancelot
looked a little smug as he proposed this.
Arthur cleared his throat, and then spoke. "It seems to me we should call the
ambassador what he wishes to be called, although Merlin seldom means
nothing by what he says. Will you have some meat, ambassador? I fear I do not yet
know enough of your ways to be sure what to offer you, but whatever you see before
you is freely given."
"Thank you, my lord. Your hospitality is to be highly commended."
Abdulhamid selected a plateful of food from the trays set out on the table,
making careful choices the others could not follow. For the rest of the meal, the
conversation turned to other matters, as the knights acquainted Abdulhamid with
tales of one another's exploits. Gawain and Gaheris, he learned, were nephews of the
young king, and had travelled with their brothers Agravaine and Gareth from
their father's island kingdom in the far north to join Arthur in Camelot. Lancelot,
like Baldwin, was a Frank, from Gaul, and had a castle of his own in Armorica.
Tristram came from the uttermost west of Britain, but although he was called the
Prince of Lyonesse, he spoke of King Mark of Cornwall as his liege. No-one
explained why this was, and Abdulhamid did not ask. All these knights were, like
their king and queen, aged between eighteen and thirty. Sir Ector was much older,
and did not join in the telling of tales. After the meal, the tables were moved back
against the walls and the younger knights danced with noble maidens who had shared
the feast. Abdulhamid declined to dance, and found himself sitting on a bench with
Sir Ector, while Tristram and Baldwin paced together along the far side of the
"You have come far, my lord", Ector began. "I had not thought young Arthur's fame
had spread as far as you say. What do men like you say about us?"
"I do not think that men like me have yet heard of your king, Sir Ector. I am an
African, from beyond the Great Sea, and had scarcely heard of these islands until I
reached Jerusalem. But in Baghdad and Byzantium the Arabs and the Greeks say
that there is an emperor in Hyperborea, which there has not been since
Constantine the Great raised his standard here. They say he is a man who loves
God, and his court is the greatest in the West."
"And what do you say, Palamides? Are we so great?"
"I cannot say if this is the greatest court in the West, for I have seen few
indeed since I left Byzantium. But it is the greatest I have seen since then, and
though it is not greater than the court of the Emperor of the East, or of my liege the Caliph, yet I should be lying if I said it were much less. It is an honour to be sent here." Abdulhamid looked at Ector inquisitively. "And what is it to you, a Briton, what an Arab, or a black man, says about your king and his court?"
Ector smiled behind his greying whiskers. "I value the word of a black man as
highly as any other, sir knight. And I care what people think of Camelot because I remember better than many here what this land was like when none of this was. King Arthur is my foster-son, left in my care by old Merlin after his father Uther Pendragon died. Uther's hold on this land was not so strong as Arthur's is now, and when he died, the realm men called Britain collapsed. You may think Camelot very fine, but the queen's father, King Leodegrance, ruined his realm to pay for it. But for Merlin, and Nimue of the Glass Isle, King Mark would have taken Cameliard and all the country as far as Winchester. And this was a safer land than others. The Prince of Chester was killed by something from the Wirral, so they say, and all the North was at war for ten years. It's been a great struggle to bring peace to the land. Young Arthur has the allegiance of every king and prince in Logres now, saving only Mark of Cornwall. In my younger days I was a loyal knight to Uther, little though he deserved it, but I have no mighty achievement to boast of. If the boy I took in is now a king whose renown reaches Baghdad, I am happier than if I had all the conquests of the Round Table to my name." A tear had come to the old knight's eye as he was speaking, and Abdulhamid paused before replying.
At length he asked, "How did Arthur come to rule so well, when his father left
the kingdom in such disarray? You must have taught him well, Sir Ector."
"I thank you for your compliment, but I should say I didn't know he was Uther's son at the time. While I did my best for the lad, it's to Merlin that he owes his present influence. The old magician would serve no-one for fifteen years while Arthur was growing up. Although he came here to Camelot often, he would never serve Leodegrance, but always came to speak with Guinevere. Then, when Arthur was sixteen, and squire to my boy, Kay, Merlin and Bishop Baldwin - Abbot Baldwin as he was then - held a great Tournament for Peace at Westminster. When all the kings and princes arrived, there was a great stone which no-one had seen before, lying in the churchyard on the north side of the Abbey. On top of it was an anvil, and in the anvil was a sword, which no-one could pull out. Merlin must have placed it there, and on the anvil was written that whoever could pull out the sword would be king over all. Nobody managed it, and then on New Year's Day my Kay was to fight in the foot lists. He'd forgotten his sword, and he sent Arthur to find him one. Young Arthur wanted to please Kay, so he found him the nearest and best sword he could - that which was in the anvil."
"And Arthur pulled that sword out of the stone and anvil?" Abdulhamid asked, for he had heard the same story in small parts ever since landing in Britain.
"Indeed. He took it to Kay without thinking, and when I saw it I thought my own boy was the new king. But honest to a fault, my son said his foster-brother had brought it to him. I'm not sure if the kings would have accepted Arthur even as much as they did if Merlin hadn't been there crying, 'Hail Arthur, King of the Britons!' They all agreed to follow him, but since then full half of them have rebelled and been defeated, and Mark just never swore the oath."
"If King Mark is so hungry for this land," asked Abdulhamid, "and owes no loyalty to Arthur, why is Tristram, his liegeman, here in Camelot? Is he an ambassador, as I am?"
"A fair question. King Mark is Arthur's cousin, and would not join the eleven kings who rose against him. When that war was over, rather than risk Arthur's wrath by staying aloof, Mark sent Tristram, his ward, as a sort of hostage. It's an old custom between kings who dislike each other but do not wish for war. Mark trusts Tristram completely, and no doubt hears from him all that passes here."
"So Tristram's land is tributary to Cornwall?"
"Alas, no. Once they were allies, the two most purely Celtic lands in Britain, not tainted by Roman, Norman, Frankish or any other race. But Tristram, in being born, killed his mother, the queen. This was a bad omen for the land, for to the Celts, the life of the king and queen is the life of the land. Before Tristram was full-grown, a great flood overtook the land. Tristram was at Tintagel when it happened, and never saw his father again."
Abdulhamid frowned. "What caused the land to be destroyed?"
"We do not know."
"Was it a god-fearing land? For the Lord has destroyed many nations, from the time of Noah to Thamoud and Aad. Maybe this land was like them."
"There were a hundred and forty churches in Lyonesse, Sir Palamides. I cannot think that it was that which destroyed them."
A thought came to Abdulhamid belatedly, and he looked up to see if Tristram were still present. It was too late, for Baldwin sat alone on a bench, much nearer than when he had last looked.