When the snow melted, and the first spring flowers started to appear, the Round Table Knights began riding out from Camelot. Prince Tristram was granted permission by King Arthur and King Mark to journey into Wales. Gawain and Gaheris were to go to Caithness, to meet with the rest of the Orcadian clan. Lancelot made for France, to the wedding of his friend Sir Bors de Ganis. All the knights swore to return by Whitsun, when Arthur was to hold a court, and a great tournament, at Winchester. Arthur himself resolved to go to Chester, and asked Merlin and Abdulhamid to go with him. Abdulhamid willingly agreed to this, longing to see more of the country. They left Camelot in early February with many attendants, and Arthur charged Bedevere to hold the castle well in his absence.
As they rode out, on the second day from Camelot, they passed on the left hand a great expanse of water, as smooth and reflective as a looking-glass. Abdulhamid
could see rushes in great stands by the side of the water, and reaching out here
and there far from the shore. Far beyond, on the horizon, a lonely island was seen, joined only by its own reflection below. Abdulhamid asked Merlin, who was riding on a grey mare close by, what the place might be.
"This is the great South Mere, Sir Palamides. It joins the sea at the far side, and would be called a bay, but that it is so shallow that no ship which goes by sea may sail it. Only the lightest, broadest boats may pass over to the Glass Isle. There dwells my blessed sister Nimue, and there are thorns both within and without." And the enchanter rode on.
After they had passed away from the Mere once more, they came to a land of hills, riddled with damp caves. As they camped in a ravine, surrounded by broken rocks, and the mouths of the caves, Abdulhamid set a watch-fire by the door of his tent, and whetted his great, curved sword. Sir Kay, who was riding with the party, approached him as he sharpened the blade. Kay was a tall young man with a wide mouth.
"Why are you sharpening your sword, Sir Moor? Are you afraid of these hills?" Kay asked, levelly.
"Indeed I am, Sir Kay," Abdulhamid replied, not showing any fear openly. "Caves such as these are the lairs of ghuls, creatures shaped like men, that feed on the flesh of men."
Kay scoffed. "I never heard of such a beast. And even if there were such a thing here, I should not fear it. Bravery is a great virtue of the Christian knight." And Sir Kay returned to his own tent.
The night passed peacefully, and the next days led them through more open
country, with low, rolling hills and broad valleys. They passed a ridge of steep hills, not high, but sharply rising from the plains around. A few days later, they crossed a stone-flagged road, broad enough for three carts and stretching away in both directions, perfectly straight as far as the eye could see. As they crossed this highway, Abdulhamid stopped his horse, and spoke to Arthur.
"This is a fine road, my lord. There must be many skilled craftsmen in your
kingdom, to have built such a thing."
Arthur smiled. "Alas, no. This road is centuries old, the work of the Roman
emperors who ruled these lands before Vortigern let the Saxons in. It is called Watling Street, and it leads all the way to London, and to Mona. Now that peace is returning to the land, I hope I may build great things too. The city to which we are travelling, Chester, was built by the Romans, who called it Deva."
"In Africa, too, I have seen the works of the Romans," Abdulhamid replied. "But I had not known that they had built so much here, in Britain."
Merlin answered. "These lands may look strange and wild to you, Palamides, but
they are rich. The Romans came here seeking gold, marble, and slaves. They found
gold in Wales, away beyond us to the west. But in digging it out, they found what
they had not expected. The druids, the ancient priests of the land, had used the gold sparingly, for ritual. But the Romans made coins, necklaces, and bracelets of it. They sought as much as they, or their slaves, could carry, and they dug deep. There were things sleeping in the earth that awoke, and are still awake, and moving."
"What things are those?"
"Some you might call djinn, and others ghuls. Here they are called spriggans, ogres, trolls and mara."
Kay heard this said, and was silent.
At length they came within sight of the walls of Chester. Abdulhamid noticed, as they approached, that no crops were grown beside the road. The land round about appeared to be a sort of heath, with near-impenetrable clumps of trees here and there. A cold wind was blowing from the west, making the king's company shiver and draw their cloaks more tightly around them. A horseman rode out of the south gate of the city, and came down to meet them. When he was close enough to see their faces, he hailed Arthur, and when they were about ten yards apart, he dismounted.
"My liege! It is good that you have come here. My name is Medoc, and I am the
sheriff. The city lies without a prince, and I am no man to choose another." Medoc bowed deeply.
Arthur looked down at the sheriff, who was middle-aged, with fair hair. "Pray lead us into the city, then, good sheriff. My men and I have come from Camelot, and I shall hold court here on the morrow."
The city was surrounded by a great wall of sandstone and brick, built in the days of the emperor Severus. When Arthur and his company had passed through the south gate, they were led into a broad street going up to the tower that had been the prince's. The doors of the great tower were locked and barred, since the day the prince had been killed, but Arthur ordered the bars and locks to be struck off. Inside was a fine hall, and enough rooms for all the company to be lodged. The king declared that they would spend the night in the tower, and in the morning his court would be held in the hall. When they had eaten, Abdulhamid went up alone to the roof of the tower, to look at the stars. When he had sat there about half an hour, he realised that whereas he had been alone, he had now been joined by Merlin. Abdulhamid greeted the king's adviser, and asked if he too had come to observe the heavens.
"On the contrary, Palamides. I am observing the earth."
"Are not wizards supposed to seek signs in heaven, to learn of matters on earth?"
"The heavens are very fair, Sir Palamides. But what man, by deeds on earth, may leave a mark on them?"
"I do not think that men may change the heavens, O vizier. But is it not written in your scriptures that the birth of the prophet Jesus - may peace be upon him! - was foretold by a new star, which led magi to him?"
"Not in my scriptures, for I am no more a Christian than you are, and
perhaps less. But you are right. When that which dwells in heaven touches those on earth, then the signs may be read in the stars. Nevertheless, I am not watching heaven, but the earth. Look yonder." And Merlin pointed to the north-west.
"I see fires. Is there an army camped there?"
"An army of a sort, certainly. But it is not camped there. Those fires are cold and pale, and they mark the habitation of dead wights, that you would name ghuls, and other unclean things. These are what we spoke of, upon the road. Such a one slew the last man to dwell in this tower."
"What land is that, then?"
"It is the wilderness of the Wirral, a desolate finger of land between two great rivers. The mountains of Cambria, farther to the west, are the lair of many terrible creatures, and their spawn crossed the Dee long ago to plague the men of Chester."
"Does Arthur mean to drive them back?"
"I cannot say. But if he does, he will need more help than I can give him."
The following morning the knights gathered in the hall for the king's court.
Arthur listened to the pleas of the people of the city, and gave judgement on their disputes. At noon, as the court was ending, Medoc the sheriff himself came before the court, and pleaded with the king to choose one from among his knights to be a new prince over the city. Arthur heard what Medoc said, and considered deeply. Arthur's judgement had been wise, but Abdulhamid feared that he might make his foster-brother Kay prince, whose counsels would not be wise. At length, Arthur ordered Medoc to stand forward. Drawing his sword, he dubbed Medoc a knight, and appointed him Palatine of Chester. The sheriff was startled by this, but he swore to uphold the king's charge faithfully. Arthur instructed him not to make any sortie into the Wirral, but to fortify the city. Then the king declared that his company would rest another night and then ride west. Abdulhamid recalled that the things that lived in the wilderness had come down from the west.