Abdulhamid was given lodging high in the keep, looking north over the turrets and courtyards behind the great hall. Gawain showed him the chamber, which was hung with rich tapestries. Round-topped arches met in a cylindrical pillar over and around the unglazed windows, which were flanked by heavy weatherproof drapes. Abdulhamid entered, followed by Gawain, who was in turn joined by a page who brought with him the contents of Abdulhamid's saddlebags. Several large bundles were set down beside the bed, and the page left again.
Abdulhamid crossed the chamber and looked out of the window. The light had gone from the grey sky and a few flakes of snow floated down. Lanterns and torches illuminated the more public parts of the castle, while oil lamps glinted
sporadically at chamber windows. He sighed wearily, and turned back to Gawain. The red-haired knight had been joined by a somewhat older man with a short black beard, who wore a fine tunic and an embroidered cloak.
"Ambassador, this is King Arthur's castellan, Sir Bedevere of Berwyn,"
Gawain announced. "Bedevere, I believe you haven't yet been introduced to our new
Abdulhamid bowed half-way, and smiled. "You keep a fine house for the king, Sir Bedevere," he replied. "As yet I am not fully accustomed to the climate here in Britain, but within the walls of Camelot I shall be comfortable indeed."
Bedevere returned the bow. "I am told that your people, like my own,
prize hospitality highly. It gratifies me, then, that you are pleased by what you
have seen so far."
"Sir Bedevere, this chamber will suit me well. Although you were not expecting
me, you have guessed my tastes well. These tapestries are fine indeed."
"I must confess that I had the pages gather imported tapestries in this chamber this afternoon, ambassador," Bedevere announced, poorly feigning to be embarassed. "These have been brought from far Azagzouc."
"Indeed!" Abdulhamid smiled a broad, white smile. "My lord castellan, your
welcome is admirable. I thank you." And he bowed again.
Bedevere withdrew, satisfied that his guest was well at home. Once he had left, Gawain drew the heavy drapes across the window, and stirred up the fire in the grate. After a moment's pause, he spoke again.
"Where is Azagzouc, Sir Palamides?" His voice was edged with more than simply
Abdulhamid answered carefully. "I am not sure, Sir Gwalchmai. In all my
travels, I have never heard it mentioned, except by cloth merchants."
"Do they traffic there in secret, then?" Gawain asked.
"Truly, Gawain, I do not believe they do. For these tapestries are from Baghdad, unless I am sorely deceived. See, here, in the corner of this one."
"Oh - is that a stain?"
"Not at all. It is woven into the cloth, and the last time I saw such a mark was on the work of Daoud the Weaver, who lived not far from my own house there. I may be in error, but I might say this was his work."
Gawain chuckled. "I shall not let Bedevere know of your discovery. Although he
has given you a greater reminder of home, I am not sure he would wish to be corrected. Your travels give you the advantage."
Abdulhamid answered, "Only in Africa and the East, Gawain. Of your western
lands I know but little."
Gawain made a gesture, and the two knights slowly made their way from the room. "I had thought you would have crossed the Alps and the forest of Broceliande to come to Britain, Palamides."
"No, indeed. From Byzantium I went by land only as far as Smyrna, and took
ship there. The well-born merchant captain brought me all the way to the port of
Tintagel. I had not been beyond the Pillars of Hercules before, and I must
confess the crossing from Spain to Cornwall was very rough. I was surprised that the captain would chance it, so late in the year, but he told me the profits at the Cornish port were high enough for him to risk the loss."
"Sailors in these parts must needs be hardy men," Gawain responded, "but few at any time would go further west than you have done, much less in this season."
"Forgive my ignorance, but I realise I have never been told. What lies to the
west of this island?"
"There is another, lesser island, named Hibernia, or Eire-land,
little further from Cambria than Kent is from Gaul. Beyond it lies only the wild river Ocean, and they say the air and the sea there are warm."
"Then Hibernia is the fabled Hyperborea, at the back of the north wind."
Abdulhamid spoke in tones touched with awe. Looking out of the lancet window by
the top of the stairs, he could see the snow getting heavier.
Gawain laughed somewhat bitterly. "Men call all these lands Hyborea, but I have never known them to be but in the teeth of the north wind. My father is king over the isles to the north of this, and all Caithness. There, the trees bend before the north wind all the year round, and the sea is as unsafe in winter from ice as from storms. There are monks who say there is another land beyond my father's, but if there is such a place, no man could live there for the cold."
"And is Hibernia also so cold?" Abdulhamid enquired as they descended the spiral stair.
"Not so cold as Orkney, or England. I was in Hibernia once with my father, years ago in my youth, and it seemed a very fair country. Like Cornwall and lost Lyonesse, it was richer and more abundant than the easterly parts of these isles. But I fancy your own lands must be richer still, for I am told the East is very hot."
They stood now in a hallway, close to where the outer stair entered the keep. At one end several smaller passages met at the foot of the spiral stair, and at the other was a great oaken door. Abdulhamid looked up at the painted ceiling before answering. "Baghdad is indeed fertile, because it stands in the land between the rivers, known of old as Uruk. But there are many great deserts in the East, and high places where the djinn howl and no mortal man goes. And in Africa, where I dwelled as a youth, there are seas of dry sand, and mountains so barren that nothing can feed there."
Abdulhamid's words echoed plaintively in the empty hallway, and Gawain stood by him a while, not speaking. Then other small groups of knights began to arrive, and a few minutes later the King himself, accompanied by Merlin, walked past them all and opened the door. Without a word, they followed him into the chamber beyond. The room had eight sides, and was lit by torches. Pages entered along with the knights and drew the hangings across the windows set in three of the walls. In the centre of the room was a vast circular wooden table, surrounded by carved thrones, all alike. The surface of the table had once been richly painted, but now was somewhat marked, and the design a little faded. Without needing to be told, the knights stood each behind a throne. Abdulhamid did so as well, and noticed Prince Tristram was directly opposite him. Tristram spent scarcely a glance on him, but turned and looked directly at Arthur. When the noise of movement had died down, the King spoke.
"Good Yule, one and all. Welcome, Prince Tristram, Lord Abdulhamid. Knights of the Round Table, I bid you welcome these two stranger knights. Tristram is known to many of you already, for his high birth, great valour, and skill at arms. Abdulhamid is newly come to our land, and I doubt not that he will soon show himself as worthy and skilled a knight as any here. His recommendations from his master the Caliph of Baghdad are impeccable. Lord Abdulhamid, I ask you to give a brief account of yourself for the benefit of these my knights."
Abdulhamid paused, collecting himself. The he answered, "My lord, I thank you for your welcome once again. I cannot boast of achievements such as Prince Tristram's, but only report truly my own journeys. It is the duty of every man of my faith to make pilgrimage, if he is able, to the Holy City. So when I was of age I went up from my old home in Africa to Medina and to Mecca, which are in the greater Arabia. And from there I went up to Jerusalem, for it is said that those three cities are the most holy on earth. And upon all my pilgrimage I had heard men say that the Caliph Haroun, the rightly-guided, was the mightiest king that lived, and so I resolved at Jerusalem to go to Baghdad and offer my sword in his service. And I was at Baghdad seven years, serving the Caliph. When the Caliph heard of the deeds that were done here in Britain, he decided upon this embassy, and sent me to journey through Asia Minor to find the court of the new king. My brother had joined me at Baghdad, and journeyed with me to Byzantium by way of Jerusalem and Damascus. We remained at Byzantium a while, seeking how we might best reach Britain. And while we were there, my brother was wounded, fighting with a man from the north. He was tended by the monks there, and made me swear to continue the mission alone, as I had been named ambassador. I was loath to leave my
brother, but he persuaded me, and so I came hither."
Arthur thanked Abdulhamid for his story, and gestured to the knights to seat themselves. As Abdulhamid was about to sit in the throne he had selected, Gawain called to him.
"Palamides! Choose another seat."
"Is this seat not the same as any other?"
"Surely, Palamides, the meaning of the Round Table is that all seats are equal. But the chair you have selected is called the Siege Perilous, and Merlin has declared that if any but the finest knight in the world sit there, he shall surely die. None of the brethren seated here have yet dared this thing."
Abdulhamid looked chastened, and chose another seat, nearer Gawain's. The talk in the council was of matters and places he did not know, but it was clear to him that wonders were done in the land of Britain, and he resolved to see them for himself.