POST #35: Ambiguous

castle

WARNING: This is a long post! In fact, it’s a 3,000 word short story that I entered for our school competition. The title I was given was Ambiguous, and I tried to include as many ambiguous elements as possible.

The sun sank leisurely below the dipped horizon, speckling lazy rays of light across the West-facing side of the Valley. The two castles situated high up on the twin hills were both bathed in the rosy glow of early evening; their stony turrets inviting in the late summer breeze.

Just as the long, glorious days had bleached both castles of their formerly intimidating appearance, so had their owners lost their appetite for conquest and bloodshed.

“Let us live out our days here.” One balding adventurer said to the other. His name was Lear, and he was angled and scarred. A rough carving from ancient stone; his face had the hacked features of humanity, but none of the glint inside it. He could not have contrasted more with his brother, Launce. That man’s face was fleshy and weak. But underneath his mud-brown eyes lay a flash of green, a flash of envy, a flash of greed.

They sat at the Valley’s base, leaning against the bricked bridge that straddled the river dividing each castle. It was not much more than a broad stream; water clear as glass gushed over smooth, wide pebbles. Its hypnotic quality was only heightened by the glimpse of a flickered fish, a gold dart, exciting for the eye, and even more so for the stomach.

Both turned in the fading light to gaze benignly at their children. Launce’s two sons, and Lear’s daughter. The elder of the two boys, with looks that resembled his father and a personality to match, sat stretched out on the firm grass, dreaming of riches and glory – he was of that age. The two younger ones were a little further away. He was reading aloud to her, in a halting voice, that stopped each time a new word was stumbled upon. She was making daisy-chains from withered daisies, and the two men looked on as she adorned her cousin with a crown of decayed flowers. There was something regal in her touch; they saw it, and the little boy saw it too, for he did not shrug off the flowers.

It was a shame, Lear thought. That his daughter would marry the cousin she hated, rather than the one she loved.

Earlier, they’d played together in the heat of the summer sun. The ice blue expanse of sky had watched them race each other down Lear’s hill, over the tiny bridge, and up Launce’s; and then back again. When they tired, together the two children climbed the silver birches that provided mere smatterings of shade on the hillside. The game was to leap off a lower branch, swing from a higher one, and drop down to the ground below. Delight came with the risk; every so often a branch would sag, and crack under the weight. Then the jump down was hasty, and screams intermingled with giggles.

“Yes, brother. And with your daughter pledged to my son, we can rest in the certainty of a strong future. We may have had our differences, but I am glad we are allies, Lear.”

“Likewise.” The other man said.

The sun was all but swallowed by blue-grey clouds, shot through with streaks of pink. Twilight was rapidly turning to dusk, and as the brothers turned to the river once again, a final shimmer of light shone upon the surface of the river.

To the brothers’ surprise, the light beamed back at them. Both squinted simultaneously, intrigued. A tiny form seemed to take shape before their eyes, underneath the clear water. It seemed almost ethereal, a pebble shaped like any other, but coloured a deep, translucent blue.

Launce vaulted over the bridge’s railing and into the river, scrambling desperately for the jewel. He was followed by Lear, who watched as his brother thrashed around in the water, kicking up only mud and silt; hindered by his greed. When Launce stopped for a second, exhausted, Lear’s keen eyes spotted it at once, and he snatched up the gem from the river bed.

Launce snarled, and tackled his brother, knocking him underwater. But the river was cold, and his hands were numb, so that he couldn’t unfurl Lear’s steel grasp. With a roar, Lear found his footing and rose up from the river.

“Give it to me.” Launce muttered.

Lear refused, calling for his daughter sharply. She ran to him immediately, her eyes narrowing in consternation. Then he strode back up to his castle, his daughter hurrying to keep up with him, a tiny sheepdog tripping at his heels.

Launce’s younger son could just see the hulking figure of his Uncle through the indigo dusk. He watched as Lear leant down and entrusted something in his daughter’s hands.

Later, he would marvel at the clear, ice blue of it, placed gently on her pale skin. She let him touch it, hold it; although never taking off the gold chain that fastened it around her neck. It was smooth, and blue, and flawless.

Throughout the coming winter, and the following summers, people came to the Valley. They built their houses on the slopes, swore allegiance to both brothers, and farmed the land for wheat and rapeseed, to sell in the markets a few miles away. Painters came up for the summer, for the light and landscape were unique, and when they saw a little girl dart between them, offering drinks and helping with odd-jobs, they called her for the blue pendant always round her neck.

The name stuck, and by the time she was sixteen, most knew her only as Sapphire, while those old enough to have called her anything else soon changed their ways.

And for the little boy, as he grew older, his love of the girl became so intertwined with his love of the jewel, that often, he could not tell where one ended and the other began.

***

It was the night of her engagement to Taurus. He had returned from his travels six months ago with the finest grey-blue silk, which had been made up in a dress for her in anticipation of this moment. Despite herself, Sapphire hated the colour. It was a foggy blue, an autumn blue; a shade chosen only because it would complement the sapphire; which was all that Taurus saw of her.

She stared down at her pendant. It had held her dreams over the years; encapsulating them in a swirl of glittering turquoise. It had become like an external heart; beating in the same rhythms as her own. Everyone who saw her, saw it first – their opinions of Sapphire herself molded by the hypnotic power an expensive jewel wields over country folk.

Yet, all too often, she wondered whether she was the only person who realised it was just an ‘it’. Just a pretty piece of rock, nothing more, nothing less. She loved it, but in her eyes, it did not define her.

The mirror in her room was large, rimmed with gold leaf. Her father had provided well for her these last years; his maxim that peace brought more bounty than war had proved true. And now she was called on to cement the union with matrimony. But to such a man!

For Sapphire understood people. She had a knack for sensing how other people thought. At first she’d imagined it as a power given to her from the jewel around her neck, sapphire looking out for Sapphire; making sure she never put a foot wrong with her father, or with Taurus, or his father, Launce. Now she knew herself better; knew that her skill was only that of looking; carefully and in the right places.

And whenever she saw Taurus looking at her, the greed in his eyes was astounding. He had a soft, circled face, that rippled down to his body with barely a distinction between the one and the other. His eyes, however, were hard; sunk deep into his face like tiny craters, and envious: greedy. When he leered at Sapphire, his eyes did not reach her face, but focused on the gemstone next to her heart. For him, she was nothing more than the vessel the jewel was presented on; even her name testified to that.

But there was enough time, after, to regret a turn of events she had no choice over. Her appearance was satisfactory. The dress flattered her, as she had known it would, emphasising the blue from her grey eyes. She had drawn kohl under her lashes, creating a sweeping, darker look. Her hair had been plaited, and painstakingly woven with seed pearls.

A knock on the door.

“Come in.” She was expecting one of the village girls, or perhaps her father, to tell her it was time for the feast.

But her breath hitched as she realised who it was.

“You look beautiful.”

“Sebastien, don’t say that.” She refused to turn around, bursting out in sudden disgust. “Say what you like, but not that. It’s so… insipid.”

“But it’s true.” Sapphire could hear the muffled creak of wood as he leant against the door frame. It irritated her, him always leaning on things. He knew that, but he still did it anyway.

“But it’s not important! All this supposed ‘beauty’ is just a bit of paint and a pretty dress. I don’t think much of any man taken in by such superficial nonsense.”

His reply made her narrow her eyes. “What do you mean? I’m forgetting that I’m Sapphire, or that I’m forgetting my sapphire, this millstone around my neck?”

“Both.”

“Well, if you meant the latter, I honestly would prefer it to be a lump of coal. At least then I could live up to the object I’ve been reduced to.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Don’t tell me what to say or do.” She snapped, vexed more at her helpless situation than Sebastian, but using him as a release all the same. He knew, and he wouldn’t resent her for it.

“But you’re not just an object – not to me,” His sentence was left open, an unwelcome reminder of all that lay unresolved between them.

Compress it. Close down sensual thought. Rationalise, rationalise.

“Why are you here?” An abrupt change of subject, but the focus on practicalities helped Sapphire breathe more easily.

He paused before he began, which made her suspicious.

“I overheard my brother talking with the men he went adventuring with yesterday. He talked about selling it. My father’s estate isn’t doing as well as yours, and the enormous sum it would fetch would be life-changing.”

“What?” Her face swiftly darkened to a scowl. “How dare he!”

“But don’t worry – I’ll buy you a lump of coal instead.”

“Sebastian – this is not funny! He has no right to take what’s mine.” Furious, she grabbed her cloak, lined with fur, and, needless to say, blue – a rich indigo hue.

She raced down the stone steps in a series of quick staccato taps, weaving her way through the narrow passages. He followed her, silently.

Sapphire took a deep breath before entering the Great Hall. It was a dank, low ceilinged room, with stone-walls and a fortified roof. Built squat, defensive. People lined the long, low tables and she could hear the soft undulation of hundreds of concurrent conversations. The sound paused as a collective breath was taken when she burst through the door.

Sitting at the High Table were her father, her uncle, and Taurus. She strode up to them, her indignation clear on her face.

Lear frowned. “Daughter, what’s the matter?”

“Taurus is going to sell it. For money. The moment we marry.” She said, her controlled tone belied by her knees; which shook with rage.

“What?” Lear shouted, echoing his daughter’s first reaction.

He turned to the man sitting beside him and was confronted with Taurus’ self-satisfied smirk.

“I forbid you to sell the sapphire, Taurus.” Lear bellowed. What remained of his hair was white and brittle, and his stomach had blossomed in the last years. Yet his eyes remained astute, and his voice – although rarely raised in anger these days – could still tear the guts from any man.

“She’ll be mine when I marry her, so I can do what I like.” He replied, petulantly. He’d leant back in his chair and weathered the vocal onslaught determinedly.

“Then I forbid you to marry her.” Lear bellowed again, raising a clamor from the crowds below.

Launce got to his feet immediately. “Brother; I’d advise you against this! Do you want to make an enemy of me, too?”

The guards, having stood discreetly behind Lear, moved forward into the candle light. They were an ominous presence, threatening, and they reminded Launce of whose castle they were in.

“We need the money! And you can’t stop me!” Taurus screeched, stepping over Launce and down from the High Table.

Sapphire realised, too late, that he was coming for her. He grabbed her neck, fumbling for the chain, and held it up, twisted.

“I’ll strangle her.” He spoke directly to Launce, as if he needed to prove it, to prove his ruthlessness to his father. Sapphire already knew; the way he had taunted her, using his few years’ advantage over her and Sebastian, had spelled it out long ago.

“Put her down, you idiot son!” Launce screeched, deafening eardrums.

“Let go of my Sapphire!” Lear roared. The guards stepped into the light further, waiting for an order.

Taurus’ hands had closed over the jewel, holding it tightly, possessively. He said, “Now, let’s be reasonable. We need this money. Think of what it could give us; enough to repair the castle, to dress in the finest silks, to eat the richest foods -“

Sapphire interrupted him. She muttered, through gritted teeth; “It’s not yours to sell.”

She stamped on his foot; one swift, sharp movement, and his grip slackened for an instant. She wrenched it away, and stepped back, swiftly.

Voices rose in anger, as Taurus lunged for it, wildly swiping at her and shouting; “Give it to me!”

The Great Hall was in uproar. Sebastian leapt forward to hold off his brother, and they grappled. Lear’s guards drew their swords.

And at that moment, Lear shouted, his voice ricocheting off the backs of the chamber.

“Let him have it!”

There was a shared hesitation. Sapphire knew there was no way she could comply with her father’s order. She lifted it up, high off her head.

An overzealous guard stepped over to Taurus, piercing him through with his sword. Liquid seeped out of him, deserting its former body and leaving it writhing in agony.

She brought it down to the ground with a terrific force, smashing the blue rock on the ground beneath her.

It shattered, shards flying in all directions, skidding on the blood that ran in rivulets across the stone floor.

Blue became stained red, just as red was pierced through with blue.

***

The moon stood proud, cocooning the Valley in a translucent glow. Fork-tailed hawks glided over the hills, swooping past the inhabited castle, and coming to rest on the ruined one. Birds found a home in those crumbled turrets; their chicks finding new life in the grave of an old one.

So did Sebastian. He was the ruler of the Valley now, and yet a night did not pass without him walking here and leaning against the rough stone, rugged from so many years exposed to the elements.

To others, he was a strong leader; a fair one. The facade of grim determination he kept up each day could disintegrate under the cover of darkness, and so it did. With no one watching, his eyes streamed with salty tears, and his calloused hands reached in his pocket to touch the shard of Sapphire that had not left him behind.

In the soft light, it could have been glass. Only the tiniest hint of blue could be seen through it. It could have been a marble, a pale blue eye. A raindrop, crafted by the sky-Gods, and thrown to the ground.

For him, it was the last shard of her soul. The tiny fragment that he’d saved from the carnage that night.

It was everything.

His hand was clenched so tightly around it, the sharp edge of the stone drew blood from him. A drip splashed onto the jewel.

Only then did he understand what she had said all her life. It was only a rock – it couldn’t breathe, it couldn’t laugh, it didn’t hold itself in that dignified, precocious way that she did…

He could look at it for hours at a stretch, but it never reciprocated. Never looked into him, like it knew his darkest secret, and loved him anyway.

It was nothing.

The knowledge tore him apart. He’d kept hold of it for so long, clutching a shiny illusion. He’d fooled himself, pretending all these years that she was still beside him, sitting in a pocket, waiting to be gazed at and cried over.

He savoured it in his hands for the last time. It felt solid, distinct, heavy.

The river was a little way away, but his arm was strong. He threw it, and its arc was perfect. A tiny splash; the water had claimed it again.

A deep breath exhaled. The memories had not left him. No; they were not clear-cut. They shifted and faded with time and perspective. But life was not clear-cut. It was abstract, paradoxical. Weaved together from a thousand tiny moments of laughter and pain.

What did that leave him? A bittersweet joy. The realisation that, too late to do anything about it, the world, and the girl he loved in it, was uncertain. Not good, not evil, but ambiguous.

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