For years, Don Carlo di Vargas had searched for his archnemesis, and as time passed, his obsession with revenge grew stronger and stronger, until it was the only thing that mattered. He spent his time in roadside inns and war-torn towns, looking for his prey like a bloodhound. He would only sleep when he was too exhausted to go on, and he tried to forget his dreams when he woke up. He was desperate to find him, desperate to end this living hell.
And now, finally, he was standing in front of a monastery. He knew he was on the right track. Alvaro couldn't have found a more remote place – high in the mountains, quiet and out of the way of any major trade routes. It was cold up here – late autumn winds really had a bite, and the promise of snow hung in the air. Carlo pulled his cloak tighter, hiding the swords under it.
You may call yourself Raphael now, but I know it's you. I can feel your presence. If only that fool janitor would hurry up and tell you I'm waiting already…
He closed his eyes. He could still see Alvaro as he looked when they last met, those fiery eyes, that long hair, that slim but strong figure…
His voice woke Carlo from his daydreaming. He turned around and saw him, just as beautiful as he used to be. Maybe a few silver strands in his dark hair, but otherwise he had barely changed. Carlo, on the other hand, was a lot more weather-beaten and tired than he used to be. He did not care about his own health, he drank too much in these last few years and it started to show, and there was a manic glint in his eyes.
"Do you recognize me?"
Alvaro looked at him in shock, but it quickly turned to joy. Carlo hesitated for a moment. He had missed him, missed having a friend, a brother beside him… and for a moment, they almost embraced. Alvaro smiled – then Carlo remembered why he was here and grabbed him by the throat.
"Five years. Five damn years I have searched for you." He pushed him against the stone wall. "Only your blood can wash away your crimes. Oh, of course, you have no sword now – don't worry, I brought two." He threw off his cloak, revealing the swords. "Come. Let's finish this."
"Don Carlo, please, I am a monk – I cannot – I have sworn off violence…"
"Coward! You robes will not protect you!" Carlo wished he could just slaughter him right there, but his honour forbid it. No, he had to force him to fight back.
Alvaro had the audacity to beg for mercy and insist he was innocent. That he had not seduced Leonora. As if the word of such a cur mattered. Just thinking of him and Leonora together made Carlo furious, and his hatred for his sister flared up. While Alvaro had been wasting his time, it started to snow.
"Stop your whining and fight me already!"
"Brother… have mercy." Alvaro really must have practiced humility as a monk, because he threw himself at Carlo's feet.
"You're pathetic, you dishonourable, dirty half-breed-"
He had finally hit the one sensitive point Alvaro had. The younger man jumped to his feet with the old fire in his eyes, grabbed the sword from the ground, and almost flew at Carlo, stopping the blade an inch from his neck.
"Finally!" Carlo closed his eyes. Do it, kill me now, he thought. End this.
But Alvaro still did not want to fight. He lowered the sword. "No. Leave me."
Carlo had enough. "If nothing else will make you fight back, maybe this will." And he hit him in the face.
"You have sealed your fate!" Alvaro took up his sword again, and he looked beautiful in his fury, like an angel of death. For a moment, Carlo had envisioned him crowned with fire, standing there in the snowfall.
"Oh, yes! Come to your death!" And their swords clashed. It had begun.
Carlo could not tell how long they have been fighting. Even after years with no practice, Alvaro proved a tough opponent, and they made their way up a narrow path, leading away from the convent.
They had to tread carefully here. One misstep could have been fatal. They crossed a small bridge and came to a rocky plateau, where they could move more freely. Carlo attacked with renewed passion, caught Alvaro off guard for a moment – and the next thing he knew, he had run him through.
Alvaro gasped and the sword fell from his hand, and the realization dawned on Carlo. It was over. He had won.
So why then did he throw away his blade as soon as he pulled it back, why did he stare in horror as he saw the blood soaking Alvaro's robes, why did he catch his enemy in his arms before he would collapse?
"Carlo?" There was pain in those dark eyes. "You had your vengeance. Are you satisfied now?"
Carlo was still holding him as they sank to the snowy ground. He pulled him closer.
"No" he whispered. "Oh God, no. I never expected to win."
"Why come after me then?" Alvaro whispered. "Why let revenge consume your soul? I know you, Carlo. I have seen your gentle side. Why did you give in to hate?"
"Honour commanded that I hunt you down. Alvaro, you can't imagine-" His voice broke. "When I met you, when you called me friend, I couldn't have been more happy. And then I had to find out who you were. The man who killed my father. Who has dishonoured my sister. I had no choice… I had to bury friendship and follow my duty. It tore me apart. I came here to die, Alvaro… to die and take you with me if I could."
"Carlo, I swear to you, you have to believe a dying man's word… I have never dishonoured Leonora. I loved her, yes, I still love her…"
"Even now, she is all you can think of!" Carlo realized he had given away too much. He tried to bury those feelings, but now that Alvaro was bleeding out in his arms, he could not lie to himself any longer.
"Carlo…" Alvaro reached out and touched his face. "You are weeping…"
"Remember the last time we were like this? When you made me swear I would burn your letters if you died?"
"You kissed me."
"And you kissed back."
Carlo finally let that deep-buried memory resurface, and he broke down sobbing.
"I hoped that if I destroyed you, it would quiet this raging storm in my heart. I hated you and I loved you… God have mercy on me, I still love you."
Alvaro clung to him, and Carlo caressed his hair.
"Carlo… we never had a chance to be happy. My ill fate had doomed us before we even met. It was always going to end like this."
"Don't die" Carlo pleaded, trying to stop the bleeding, but he knew it was too late. Alvaro's handsome brown face had an ashy colour, and blood was trickling from his mouth. Carlo had seen enough death in the war to know he was beyond saving.
"I welcome death. I have caused so much pain, without ever meaning to… maybe I will find peace now. I forgive you. Pray for my soul…"
"Alvaro…" He could barely see from his tears.
"Carlo… kiss me. One last time…"
A gentle hand touched the nape of his neck, weakly grasping his hair, pulling him down. Their first and so far only kiss still haunted his dreams. He leant over Alvaro and finally gave in, kissing him like he never wanted to stop. He could taste blood on his lips, but he didn't care. Nothing mattered now. He held Alvaro close, terrified to let go.
When Carlo finally broke away, Alvaro was smiling.
"I love you." And with that, his eyes closed.
"No. No, no, no, Alvaro, please…" Carlo took him in his arms, hoping he could still feel a heartbeat, but Alvaro was gone. "Dead! Merciful heaven! What have I done?" He cried out in anguish. "I am cursed, cursed forever!"
His obsession with revenge seemed like madness now. He was too prideful to admit his feelings until it was too late. There was no sense of victory, no peace, only a black void inside him.
He heard someone coming, but he couldn't see who it was in the snowfall. Probably one of the monks.
Very gently, he laid Alvaro down, then drew his dagger. His sins had already doomed him to Hell. Why wait? He had craved death for years, but never so strongly as he did now.
When he plunged the blade into his stomach, trying not to cry out from the pain, he could finally make out a figure emerging from the snow. A monk's robes, but on someone too small and too lithe to be a man.
The dagger fell from his hands. He heard a scream, and the monk was beside him, her face unmistakable as she threw her hood back.
"Carlo! Dear lord! You – here – and Alvaro, dead!" She watched him in horror. He pressed a hand over his wound. Blood was gushing out, unstoppably, and he felt strangely dizzy.
"Leonora, I'm so sorry…" He fell into the snow, next to Alvaro. Leonora pulled him in her arms.
"Carlo! Speak, what happened? How did you two end up here?" She stared at the blood that soaked his clothes. "Why did you do this to yourself?"
Carlo tried to explain, but it was several years' worth of events he had to tell her and his strength was fading. And how could he tell her what really happened between him and Alvaro? He left out a lot of details, but the regret in his words spoke volumes.
"Oh, Carlo… " She was in tears. "For years, I thought he was dead. I prayed for forgiveness, for peace. And all this time, he was so close to me, and we never knew…"
"I was a stubborn fool, sister" Carlo grasped her robes. This time, she did not flinch when he got blood on her. "I wanted to destroy him so badly, and once I did, there was nothing left to live for."
"God is merciful, Carlo. Do not give up hope."
Carlo struggled to get the words out.
"Pray for him, not for me. I'm lost. Pray for him. One day, you will be reunited."
"Padre Guardiano says no one it truly lost if they repent. You used to have so much faith."
"I don't deserve Heaven's mercy. Not after killing the only man who could have been my salvation. Only darkness awaits me."
"Please, do not think like that." Leonora held him close. He could feel she was shivering from the cold. "I will pray for you both."
"Leonora... how could you ever forgive me? After everything I did to you?"
"I never hated you, Carlo. And I'm sure Alvaro did not either."
"He did not." Carlo remembered Alvaro's last words. I love you. But he was not worthy of that love. He had ruined everything.
"I hope you will find peace."
"Peace…" He was so tired. He never had a good night's rest, not for years. "Leonora… help me. I can't move." He reached towards Alvaro.
She helped him move closer. Carlo, with what little strength he had, embraced his dead friend, resting his head on Alvaro's shoulder.
"Farewell, sister" he whispered. "Turn away... please. Do not watch me die."
"As you wish. Farewell." She leant over him, kissing him on the cheek, then let go and stood, walking a few steps away to give him some privacy.
Carlo could finally answer Alvaro's words, even if he could not hear him anymore. "I love you too" he breathed softly. And then the darkness pulled him in, and he could no longer feel the cold.