Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy

“There lies he now with foule dishonour dead, Who whiles he liu’de, was called proud Sans foy, The eldest of three brethren, all three bred Of one bad sire, whose youngest is Sans joy, And twixt them both was borne the bloudy bold Sans loy.”

- The Faerie Queene, Book I

I.

“Which of all earthly things he most did craue; And euer as he rode, his hart did earne To proue his puissance in battell braue Vpon his foe, and his new force to learne”

Holiness has murdered my brave brother.

Holiness has mangled my mind and my name.

Holiness has stolen God’s love from me.

I am walking a winding road of pale stone. Who am I? Where am I? I have answers, but they are forged falsehoods. For…days? Years? My brothers and I have been forced to live in this world that is not our world. And I have half-forgotten my own.

The one who abducted us — the mailed man-thing called Holiness — calls this place Albion. He calls it Faerie Lond. He calls it the Glorious Isle. The sunlight here is cold and lifeless, the trees are strange, and the birds have evil eyes.

He has brought us here to test himself. To prove himself a worthy knight.

To hunt us.

I do not know how he brought us to this land of blood and iron masks. I know only that I am a real man trapped in a mad landscape of living lessons.

My brothers and I were spirited here from my home in…Damascus? Yes, praise be to God that I can remember that. The sound of the street-preachers, and the smells of the spice vendors’ stalls. Damascus.

We were sipping tea in a room with green carpets, and I was laughing at a jest that…that someone was making. Who? The face, the voice, the name have been stolen from me. All I know is that my brothers and I suddenly found ourselves in this twisted place, each aware of the others’ fates, but unable to find one another. Unable to find any escape.

Now my eldest brother has been slain. And my next eldest brother has disappeared.

Who am I? I do not know how he changed our names. But in this world of lions and giants and the blinding shine of armor, I am called Joyless, as if it were a name.

It was not my name. It is not my name. But this is his place, and it follows his commands.

And thus, now, here, Joyless is my name, and Joyless has always been my name. This place, this Albion has scrawled its hateful sigils over even the past. Now, when I remember my mother’s voice calling for me across the small souq, I can only hear her voice of rock-and-honey calling “Joyless! Joyless, come here at once!” Now my father’s last whispered words to me as sunlight streamed in the wood-lattice window, his last words all those years ago were “Joyless, my beloved, thanks be to God that you are such a smart boy.” It is the only name I can find in my mind now. Whatever name I was once called, whatever name I once called myself, has been stolen.

Joyless.

A part of me knows it to be false. Some small, near-dead piece of my soul knows that I was once a joyful man. Sometimes God grants me…flashes of the man I once was. Of what joy was. The feel of the falconer’s glove as I hunted with my beautiful birds. The jeweled light on the water the first time I saw the sea. The old poet at court granting my scribblings unfeigned praise. These are the sunbeams that break the murk for a moment here and there.

Memories is too weak a word. They are like lightning. Like the pain a marked thief or maimed soldier still feels in a hand that has been lost. But they are so fleeting that they do, in fact, become flashes of pain. And each day they fade. Fewer. Farther. Each day it becomes easier to succumb to the grim magic of this place that has claimed my kin.

To forget joy.

To forget who I am.

II.

“Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine, Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde, Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine, The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde”

I am walking along a road of pale stone.

I am hunted and I am growing mad, but at least I live.

My brave brother – ten years older, he was, and like my second father — is dead. My beatific brother, whom I can only call Faithless, though that should not be his name. He has been murdered by a madman who calls himself a knight. A butcher who is called Saint in this place.

What to call this killer? He has stolen our names and given us pissed-in husks as replacements. He calls us Sarazin. Sans and Sans and Sans. But he has kept names, so many names, for himself. He is called Redcrosse. He is called the Knight. He is called the Saint.

He is called Holiness.

It takes all of my power to break the spell of this place and its false names for even a moment. To snatch the breath to call him not knight, but abductor. To call him not Saint, but brother-killer.

I walk past a twisted thing of moss and bark, flesh and tears – a man? A tree? Redcrosse has filled this place with such horrors. To teach himself lessons. To teach himself what it is to be a Saint.

I keep to the road.

He is using this strange place to test himself. To prove himself to his God and his Queen. And killing us is part of his test, it seems. He has hunted us, or set his creatures on us. The lion. The dwarf. The arch-magi.

But it was the Redcrosse himself that struck down my brother.

I was not there when they fought, but the vision came to me, emblazoned across the sickly sky of this place. Sent as a gruesome taunt, perhaps, by Redcrosse himself. I heard the sounds of plate-and-mail. I saw the Saint’s hulking mass as he entered the dueling circle. His muscle and metal. His blood-seeking sword.

And I saw my poor brother, lean as a walking-stick. I watched him kneel to pray before the battle, watched his confused, terrified expression as he found that he had somehow lost the words. Faithless, this cruel knight had renamed him.

I could do nothing but watch as Faithless – may God forgive me for remembering that as his name – faced his foe bravely, knowing nothing of the dark spells that guided the Saint’s arm.

I watched them salute and advance and exchange feints. I watched the heat of the fight overtake them both. I saw them dodge and parry and swing. Then Faithless’s sword struck true – how my heart had swelled! — and it should have laid open the Saint’s mail and ribcage alike.

But the knight’s magic had saved him. The cross on his armor had somehow turned an unturnable blow. That’s when I knew that this was all a foul jape. A madman’s mock world.

But my brother’s death was real enough. In that one thing, the Mad Knight showed me reality. I saw it enameled in sky-fire but, as I watched, I knew its truth in my soul. Redcrosse raised his sword with that huge, inhuman arm, and brought it down on…on…no, it is no use – he brought it down on Faithless’s head. My brother’s helm was split in two, and I saw his brains glisten in the pale sun of cursed Albion.

My brother’s faith had failed to protect him. It had left him with a ruined skull. And as I watched wise Faithless’s body fall, I was struck by lightning again. Or I felt a pain in something cut off from me. I saw my eldest brother, rising for the early prayer while I mumbled wine-stained curses at the muezzin into my pillow. He wore a smile as he chided me, as if the old words “Prayer is better than sleep” were written across his face.

And then, as the vision faded from the sky, for the briefest of moments, as his shield lay there in the dust, I saw new letters etch themselves across it. Letters that spelled a name that was not ‘Faithless.’ But they were too far away – or was it that they were too faint? — to see.

III.

“So long they fight, and fell reuenge pursue, That fainting each, themselues to breathen let, And oft refreshed, battell oft renue: As when two Bores with rancling malice met”

Still I follow the serpentine stone road. My beloved brother is dead. My only hope now is to find our father’s second son. For the Saint has stolen him from me, too.

My second brother – who lives by law above all else – has also had his name mangled by Redcrosse. Now he is called Lawless. And he, too, is being hunted by the Saint and his beasts.

I can’t hide the truth from God: Lawless and I share little love. Both my brothers shamed me for my love of wine, but Faithless did it with love. Lawless… Well, he lives his whole life by being mindful of what is permitted and what is forbidden. It is all he cares about. When we were children he was a tyrant of an older brother, and little has changed since then. He tells me I am too permissive with my own…

With my own…

It is no use. Some memory of mine has been stolen.

I cannot dwell on this now. I must focus on the matter at hand: Lawless is my brother. I know not what has happened to him, but I will walk this world until I find out. For, if ever I should find some way to escape, I cannot leave him here. I must find him.

And then the sky erupts in flame again. And I am granted another vision.

My brother, the tallest of us, the largest in limb, stands in a clearing, the weird trees of this place all around him. His sword is in his right hand. In his left he holds his shield, the word LAWLESS glowing golden across it.

Suddenly – I can see it in the sky-fire as clearly as if I were there — monsters fly forth from the woods. Things that are half-beast and half-man. They dance on cloven hooves and play oaten pipes even as they try to rend my brother’s flesh to bloody shreds. His eyes widen with terror above his neat-trimmed beard as he beats them back.

Do they fight of their own will? Do they do the Redcrosse’s bidding? I don’t know. But they harry and drive him until he stands in another dueling circle. Two dozen paces from him, a fierce figure in green steel plate stands waiting.

Is this the Redcrosse is another guise? Or some poor soul forced to play this brutal role by the same magic that has snatched us from our home? I no longer know whether it matters. My brother is going to die.

The knight in the green armor strides forth, bristling with sword and dagger. He is tall and cowled in a cloak of leaves. Though he wears a man’s shape, there is something in the way he moves that tells me, as loud as if it were shouted from the mountaintops, that he is not a man.

Then he throws back the cowl. Two small horns adorn his forehead, and there is a goatlike glint in those eyes. Lawless’s mouth curls down in disgust. They draw their swords, bellow angry words, and fly at each other.

As they fight, I feel I am watching my brother fight his reflection. Their swords meet, again and again and again and again. One warrior is knocked back by a blow on his shield, then the other is. The goat-knight draws blood, then my brother draws blood.

But no sooner do the cuts appear, than they are gone. And now I see the truth of it – my brother will not die. The Redcrosse and his accursed Albion have damned him to a crueler fate. This battle will never end. This creature that faces Lawless is part animal, and, in fighting it, Lawless has become part animal himself. This is worse than death for my brother. He has lost his law, his connection to God. He will be trapped in this battle, snarling, bestial, lusting for blood, forever.

I can watch no longer. As soon as I turn my gaze, the vision fades. It has done its work, I suppose. It has made certain no spark of hope – no spark of joy – might catch in my heart.

Unless…unless I can destroy the Redcrosse Knight. Unless I can kill Holiness.

IV.

“Curse on that Crosse (quoth then the Sarazin) That keepes thy body from the bitter fit; Dead long ygoe I wote thou haddest bin, Had not that charme from thee forwarned it”

I am the only one who really lives, now. I am the only son of my mother and my father that this thing-in-armor has not slain in body or soul. But it is only a matter of time – of that I am certain.

I can think of only one way to escape this fate. I could slay myself.

The thought drifts to me, sweet and gentle as a breeze. Yes, I could destroy myself and be free of this place. My hand grasps my sword hilt. In my mind I see each of my brothers die again.

And I take three deep breaths. No.

No.

I cannot abandon faith so. I cannot abandon God’s own law so. Not when I watched my most beloved brother die fighting. Not when I’ve seen my law-loving brother turned into a beast.

No, I cannot flee the Saint. And if I cannot flee from him, I must hunt him.

It does not take much to find him. He is singing songs of praise for his Queen, his voice like a trumpet as it blares across the plains.

I walk the pale stone road, following the sound of his songs. Past castle and cavern, past a sleeping giant and a woman with a mouth full of scorpions. How many of us has he brought here with his magic? How many have been twisted into monsters on which he might whet his sword-edge?

After a half-day’s journey, I finally spy his tent, like a great red war-drum. He has stopped singing. I approach as quietly as I can, keeping to the trees, trying to remain unseen.

Outside the great scarlet tent of the Redcrosse Knight, I see my dead brother’s battered shield propped against a tree-stump. FAITHLESS is painted on it in gaudy gore. And beside it, another shield –

LAWELESS. He is dead, too, then? But still this false name shadows his soul.

In the old poems, enchantments often die with those who’ve cast them. If I can – somehow – kill the Knight, perhaps I can free my brothers’ souls from this mad land. I call on God for strength, and I force myself to remember that my brothers lived by faith, and by law. My eyes must burn and water with the effort, and as I watch, the letters waver as if seen through smoke.

Has Almighty God rewarded me? Is the Saint’s strange magic fading? I don’t know. But as I step from the shadows and into the sun, I see the hooks and edges of FAITHLESS melt and dance and change into the flowing script of my mother tongue. The script of the language of God.

Abdullah, the Servant of God. That was my brother. Spending all of his time with the poor. Softly chiding me for my half-hearted fasting, in that sweet, reedy voice.

And LAWLESS – those letters are gone. Now the name Abdul Hakam, the Servant of God the Judge, is painted across my second brother’s shield. I see Abdul Hakam walking with Abdullah through the small souq, his big hand on his sword. Making it his duty to protect poor and rich, Muslim and Jew, from cheats and thieves.

But my memory shrivels as I peer past the shield and into the great red tent. I see him. I see Holiness. The man-shaped monster is before me again, but this time it is no vision.

My bravery fails me.

The great bulk of him. That great gleaming sword of his, as long as a man. That great cross on his tabard that no sword can pierce, as red as blood or hellfire. He has made himself great in this place, and he has made me weak. My knowledge is instant and utter – I cannot kill this creature.

He does not see me, he does not hear the grass crunch beneath my feet. Perhaps he is not even looking for me. He hunts greater monsters. Dragons and devils.

I could run and hide and bide my time. It would be the easiest thing in this world.

But again I think of my brothers. Of faith and of law. And of…something else, just beyond my grasp. Something that once brought me joy.

I can cower no longer. If I face him, I will die, and it will not be an easy death. But I can cower no longer. I, the youngest son, the would-be poet who sleeps too late, will stand for my brothers, and God will decide my fate. One way or another, I will have an escape from this place.

His back, a great mailed mountain, is still turned to me. I could strike. But though this place has stolen God’s love from me, I will not let it make me a devil. I will not let this Albion make me a back-stabber. I will not let it make me a murderer.

I call out a challenge.

V.

“Whereas an errant knight in armes ycled, And heathnish shield, wherein with letters red
Was writ Sans joy, they new arriued find: Enflam’d with fury and fiers hardy-hed”

The Knight of the bloody Redcrosse, the killer Saint, the hate that calls itself Holiness, turns slowly. His impossibly handsome face is radiant, an unforgiving sun. His ice-blue eyes are alight with bloodlust and madness.

He answers my challenge with haughty mock-honor. He can afford this charade, for he knows that his grisly magic protects him. He has his chivalry and his cheat both. He wipes his gory hands on an unstained tabard.

Soon we stand twenty paces apart, in a circle of hard-packed earth. Each of us prepares our arms and our armor, our hearts and our souls. Each of us dreams of killing the other, though I know my dream is folly. Across the tanned leather of my buckler, JOYLESS, the only name I know, is scrawled in lines like knife-slashes.

Another flash. I am young, in the courtyard of a small mansion. I can see the old tree that I grew up reading beneath. An important man in yellow silk – my father – is training me to use the saber, though he knows I will never be the type who loves fighting.

“Always remember, Joyless, that you are fighting a man.” Some part of me knows that my father did not call me Joyless. And yet I can remember the smell of his breath as he did so. “It is the man you are fighting, not his sword or his dagger.”

The lightning-flash fades. A look up at my foe. This Redcrosse is no man. He is anger in a suit of armor. He is war made flesh.

We raise our blades and step toward one another.

His great sword swings. I deflect the blow with my saber and riposte. We each dodge death once, twice, thrice. But each blow I meet rings through my muscle and weakens me. I will not last long.

We match blow for blow for blow. Our swords meet in a storm of steel, and each of us staggers from the impact. For a long moment we can only stand there and stare at each other, as shocked as two rams that have just butted heads.

But I see in his snarl that this is all a mock to him. Sweat barely beads his brow, and his breath still comes easy. And my own body is sore and tired. Each breath I suck down is like drinking a bowl of fire. I will die soon.

Redcrosse attacks again. His great downward chop knocks my shield away, splitting the wood beneath the stretched hide. It comes close enough to killing me that I can smell the oil on his sword.

I will die soon, but I will not die hiding. I will die doing what is right. What law and faith demand. And…

And then the moments flow as slow as honey. And God takes mercy on a man about to die far from home. The Lord of The Universe – of the true Universe — grants me a boon.

Before my eyes, the letters on my lost shield slip and tumble and writhe. They squirm and wriggle like newborn babes until I can nearly read my name.

My name!

My name, not the name this murderer-Saint has given me. Not the evil name that he has forced me to falsely recall having painted there.

The man-thing Holiness, with his monstrous mock courtesy, waits for me to regain my feet.

I stand slowly, my eyes on the shield at Redcrosse’s feet. And as the letters reweave themselves, stolen memories return to my barren mind, like cool water on parched lips.

My wise little daughter, sitting on her divan, mastering her letters at four.

My daughter Aisha. When we learned my wife would never give birth again, I thought God had robbed me by not giving me a son. We had named her after the wife of the Prophet.

Aisha – Alive.

As she grew, I knew what true joy was. The clever tricks she pulled. My pride, in spite of her uncles’ disapproval, as she wrote her first lines of poetry. Her name is Aisha! Redcrosse’s spell stole that joyful sound from me, but now it is mine again! Aisha, who made me as proud as any son could have. I will never see her again, but I will not die having forgotten her.

Yes, I once knew joy.

“My daughter’s name is Aisha,” I say. My voice, her name, is sweet and strong to my own ears. Like an angel’s war-horn. This place had nearly made me forget that I can speak!

“My brothers were Abdullah and Abdul Hakam.”

The Redcrosse’s eyes widen with shock and fury, and he bares his teeth.

Again I fix my eyes on my lost shield. Ain. Ba. Dal. The letters of my name weave themselves into words. Lam. Waw.

I am not Joyless. I have never been Joyless. “You have lost, creature. I am Abdul Wadud!I shout at the Saint. “Abdul Wadud, The Servant of God the Loving!”

And as I raise my sword and go to my death, I am smiling.

***

[This story originally appeared in RAGS & BONES: NEW TWISTS ON TIMELESS TALES (Little, Brown, 2013, ed. Melissa Marr & Tim Pratt). If you enjoyed it, please consider paying what you wish for it via a paypal tip to saladinahmed@hotmail.com]

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