The Lost Child
an extract from the novel by Sarah Ash
The Lost Child -- a foreword
Rahab sifts through the sand and uncovers...a shell.
In The Lost Child every house in the dark ghetto of the
Tsiyonim Quarter in Arcassanne has a prayer-case carved from a
shell fixed outside its front door. What is their true significance?
The Tsiyonim say it is to remind them of the sea they were forced
to cross in their flight from Tsiyon - and that they hope to cross
again one day when they return home. But when Lia Maury, a merchant's
daughter, finds a shell hidden in a chest in the attic, why is
her mother Zillaïs so angry? And why has Captain Jaufré
d'Orbiel become obsessed with the Tsiyonim shell prayer-cases
since his return from Djihan-Djihar? Rahab, the Tsiyonim tailor,
tries to fathom the answers, little suspecting that the shell
in his own troubled dreams may be a clue to the truth about what
happened to his long-lost brother Shaoni.
One of the delights of writing fantasy is that it enables me to present echoes, shadows, transmutations of places I know, much as the mind distorts familiar locations in dreams. In Songspinners I returned to my home city, Bath...the fantasy-Bath of my childhood where I used to amuse myself peopling the winding streets and wet gardens with shades of my own creating.
The Lost Child worked in reverse. For years I dreamed of visiting south-east France. Snippets of historical fact begged to be woven into a story: twelfth century Lunel, home to a flourishing Jewish college; 'bottle bottom', 'hay flower' 'wine soup', and other evocative colour shades given to the fine wool cloth sold in Carcassonne; the soldier-troubadours of the Narbonne region. The Comté of Arcassanne grew from those dreams. When at last I visited Languedoc I was not disappointed. Even on a strange grey day in late August - the foothills of the Pyrenees were as impressive as the photographs and travel books had hinted.
Clouds covered the crescent moon. In the narrow winding streets of the Tsiyonim Quarter of Arcassanne, the shutters were tightly barred, the doors double-locked against the night...and the darker shadows who stalked the night.
Rahab the tailor was still working in his garret, bending close over his work by the light of one oil-lamp.
What was that noise outside?
Startled, he pricked his finger. Casting down the work so that he should not stain it with his blood, he paused, listening.
The night's silence hurt his straining ears.
He went to the casement window and threw it open, gazing down into the dark three storeys below.
'Who's there?' he shouted.
There was a shudder of movement.
Someone - or something - had slipped out of the shadows and was running away.
'Stop!' Rahab's voice echoed, reverberating in the narrow alley. Shutters opened, heads leaned out into the night.
Rahab went hurtling down the rickety stairs and out into the street. He almost fell headlong over the bundle left lying on the doorstep.
Picking himself up, he bent to see what had tripped him.
A large heap of old clothes dumped outside -
Whose idea of a joke was it, to leave stinking rags outside the tailor's?
Clouds scudded away from the moon.
In the moonlight Rahab caught sight of the hand protruding from the bundle. A little hand. A child's hand.
He drew back, not wanting to unwrap the bundle any further.
Behind him, he heard other doors opening cautiously, heard the murmur of voices.
'What is it, Rahab?' someone called. The sound of his own name jolted him back. He looked down at his hands. They were shaking.
'Trouble,' he said. 'Bad trouble.'
'Bring a lantern!'
Lights appeared at doorways. The onlookers ventured closer.
'Well? It's just a bundle of old clothes.' It was Schimeon, tetchy after being disturbed from sleep. 'Take it away. Burn it.'
'Wait.' Tobiah the Notary stepped in and with a flick of the wrist pulled the coverings open. Rahab closed his eyes.
No. Don't look. You don't want to look.
He heard the cry of dismay and disbelief.
'A child. How could anyone do such a thing? Such a terrible thing?'
'Someone should call the Watch.'
There was silence. No-one moved.
Rahab opened one eye.
The child's face lay exposed to the moon, bleached white by the light. A boy, curls tousled...
He knew him. With a sickening jolt of recognition he saw that it was the little errand boy who had brought him a spool of golden thread earlier today. The boy to whom he had given a half-obole because he had reminded him of... Shaoni.
'If we call the Watch it'll bring suspicion on the community.'
'If we don't call the Watch it'll look even worse. It'll look as if we've something to hide.'
About seven or eight years of age, the same age as Shaoni. Lost Shaoni...
Rahab's hand crept out and brushed the boy's open lids shut. The soft skin was still warm though rapidly chilling. And at that touch, he found himself hurtled back into the past, reliving memories he had tried to forget...
Fires light the sky. Everywhere smoke, choking smoke and the acrid smell of burning. Heat sears the smoky air.
The boy grabs his little brother's hand. The child pulls away.
'Mama. I want Mama.'
People fighting, pushing, stampeding to get out. A floodtide of people breaks, the force pulling them, tugging them apart.
'No!' the boy cries, trying to hold on.
'Mama!' The little one twists and cries, panicked. 'Where are you, Mama?' His thin voice, reedy with fear, pipes out amidst the crack and hiss of burning timbers. Rooftiles crash into the street. A woman is hit on the head; she buckles, falling at their feet, her bundle of possessions spilling open. Blood from her broken head spatters their clothes, glistens on the cobbles.
'Stay with me,' the boy insists fiercely. Buffeted, he almost loses hold. 'Mama said stay with me.'
The little one starts to cry. The boy wants to cry too but he cannot, he must not, he is the one in charge, he is no longer a child.
'Not that way!' a man shouts to him. 'They're coming!'
The boy blinks, catching the glint of drawn blades through the smoke.
'To the river!' someone cries in the confusion.
The floodtide turns, sweeping them back towards the flaming ghetto.
Now he sees them. The persecutors. The Gentiles.
Men bearing down on them, men carrying torches whose flames light eyes that are glazed with the lust for blood.
The little one jerks his hand out of his - and the floodtide sweeps him away. Dazed, the boy can only stand and gaze numbly at his empty hand.
'This way, boy! D'you want to be killed?' A woman catches hold of him, points him in another direction. 'Run!'
'Shaoni!' he cries as he runs. Now he is crying and he doesn't care. Tears spurt from his eyes, streak his cheeks. They taste salt and bitter in his mouth, more bitter than the acrid smoke. 'SHAONI!'
'None of us would do such a terrible thing.'
'But they'll blame us anyway.'
The hushed voices jolted Rahab back to the moonlit street. Tears pricked his eyes. Shaoni. Little brother. Where are you?
'Of course they'll blame us.' There was anger in Schimeon's voice. 'Look at the child. Is he one of ours?'
Even in the fading moonlight the child's hair glinted, angel-fair.
'He's not Tsiyonim. He's a Gentile.'
Rahab stood with the other Tsiyonim men in a chamber of the Tour de la Justice. The men of the Watch lined the walls, arms folded, watching them. They wore a new uniform, black tabards, embroidered in silver thread with the emblem of a hawk in flight. Rahab eyed the Hawks with suspicion. Comte Aymon had pensioned off the old watchmen and recruited younger men, trained soldiers from his bodyguard returned from campaigns overseas.
'You can't hold us.' Tobiah the Notary had volunteered to speak on behalf of the community. 'You have no proof.'
'We found a body, that was all,' put in Schimeon.
'A child's body.' A voice rang out across the chamber, a voice that resonated with the brazen timbre of beaten metal. 'Ritually murdered. With a Tsiyonim butchering knife.'
'That proves nothing,' Tobiah said calmly. 'Anyone can steal a Tsiyonim knife.'
Rahab gazed uneasily around the chamber to see if he could identify the speaker.
'Approach the dais, Captain d'Orbiel,' ordered the clerk of the court.
Orbiel. Jaufré d'Orbiel. Rahab craned his neck to see as the Captain made his way up to the dais: a tall, lean, sunburned man, whose hooded eyes swept across the huddle of Tsiyonim with a look of such contempt that Rahab wanted to shrink into the shadows.
'Is that Orbiel the poet?' Rahab whispered to Rebh Jehiel who stood beside him.
Jehiel seemed not to hear him; when Rahab looked at the elderly scholar he noticed that he seemed mesmerised by the sight of the Captain.
'The child is not Tsiyonim. I suggest the words "ritually sacrificed" be written in the records,' Jaufré said to the magistrate.
'What kind of poisonous allegation is this?' Tobiah cried.
'Ritually sacrificed...' murmured Jehiel under his breath.
'It's written in your scriptures,' Jaufré said. His intelligent, cultured tones lent the wild allegations an air of veracity. 'Shall I quote you the passage?'
'You have no need to quote our scriptures to me,' Tobiah said quietly. 'And I take objection to your linking the work of a deranged killer to our holy texts. I say look for the man who molests children. The man who watches little ones at play, who waits in dark alleys for the unsuspecting child. Do not blame us. We do not make blood sacrifices.'
'Not to summon dark forces?' Jaufré said. 'Not even to create a golem?'
There was a silence in the chamber.
'Captain Orbiel, I have always taken you to be an intelligent man. A learned man.' Tobiah's voice was dry. 'Surely you do not believe those old legends? Next you'll be asking us to believe that there are Rocs in the mountains, laying jewelled eggs in their nests.'
Rahab held his breath. Tobiah was leading them along a narrow ledge; in deriding Jaufré's accusations, he risked sending them over the edge.
'If you have proof that one of our community has committed this atrocity - then we shall hand him over to the justice of the city, we shall not protect him. But until you can furnish proof, you cannot hold us here.'
'Oh, I shall furnish proof, never fear,' Jaufré d'Orbiel said, turning to the huddled Tsiyonim with a cold smile. 'Already I have the sworn testament of Sorel the Silk Merchant, confirming that he sent the boy with a spool of Golden Cloud thread to Schimeon the Tailor. If Sorel can make a positive identification...'
'Now it begins again,' whispered Mandel the Shoemaker. 'And I had thought we were safe here in Arcassanne.'
'We shall never be safe. Not until we can go home,' said Rebh Jehiel sadly, shaking his white head. 'Home to Tsiyon.'
Every night before he slept, Rahab still repeated the prayer his mother Ariel had taught him, the prayer every Tsiyonim child learned.
'And bring us safely home to Tsiyon...'
To a child, the name had evoked visions of a golden city dreaming under a blue sky, a city filled with green gardens and orchards, clearwater streams and playing fountains. In spring the orchard trees were white with blossom; in autumn, the boughs hung heavy with ripe fruit: sweet, crisp apples, fragrant blush-peaches, juicy pomegranates.
In Tsiyon, no-one went hungry, no-one was cold or afraid. In Tsiyon the children played outside in the streets and gardens. The adults smiled, laughed, sang songs... At dusk there was no curfew, the streets were filled with people strolling in the warm night air, visiting friends, dancing...
The memory was all he had left to remember his mother by. He no longer believed that he would ever return to Tsiyon; the Tsiyonim had been cast out of their homeland centuries ago. But he repeated the words because it brought her back to him, because every time he said them he was back in his home and she was bending over his bed, tucking him in...and he felt safe, so safe as she smiled down at him...
For all the years since he had seen her, he had preserved that memory, a sacred memory, untouched by the horrors that had sundered them. For all the years that he had wandered, searching for lost Shaoni, he had never forgotten to repeat the evening prayer.
Now as he lay on his pallet in the stuffy garret room, his window open to the stars, he could not sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the child again, the pale, dead eyes staring at him, accusing -
Fear fouled his mouth with a dry, sour taste.
Rahab rolled off the pallet and went to the crock to gulp down a mouthful of water. The foul taste in his mouth remained. He glanced around uneasily. His garret seemed peopled with milling shadows, shadows from the past
Here in Arcassanne he had felt safe. But tonight he had looked into the eyes of Jaufré d'Orbiel and seen hatred, a lucid, fanatical hatred.
The feeling of safety had been an illusion.
Nowhere was safe for the Tsiyonim.
was published in the UK by Millennium in the spring of 1998.
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