Alaric and Rafael met in the Courtyard between the Cathedrals of Hope and War. The Paladin, Alaric, was tall and lean, his curly brown hair hung in his face, nearly obscuring light blue eyes. He wore heavy armour, adorned with ebony and red patterns; Rafael was dressed in a long flowing robe of pure white. The priest was pale, his hair almost white in the afternoon sunlight. The paladin remembered that on that day, despite the glaring light, he noticed the priest’s deep brown eyes. They met in passing, a short nod from one to the other as they lead scores of young priest and paladin hopefuls across the yard. It was a chance meeting, an unlikely meeting of Paladin and Priest. Neither thought anything of their passing. Nothing, until it happened again.
The second time they met was on the steps in front of the great Cathedrals. The Paladin was mounted on an ebony stallion, standing in the square before the Cathedrals, his ceremonial armour glinting in the early afternoon sunlight, his softly curled brown hair peeking out from the edges of his helm. The priest stood on the stairs surrounded by frantic acolytes studying their holy texts, a faint smile on his lips. Their eyes locked, just for a moment. Their recognition was instant, they had met before. The two fixed their eyes on one another, just for a moment. Just for a moment, and in that moment, they knew that they had to see each other again.
The catacombs connected beneath the Cathedrals, serving as a secluded passage between the seats of Hope and War. They were called the sacred tombs by many. The tombs which housed the greatest humans in their history. The tombs that served as a meeting place for forbidden lovers since they day the Cathedrals had opened. It was a Temple in and of itself, a Temple of the forbidden, a Temple of temptation. The punishment for being caught there, it was unthinkable.
The two met for a third time, though this was no accident, no matter of chance. Beneath the great structures, beneath the feet of Hope and War, they stood, two men of virtue and faith. The two stood silently, eyes, still saying nothing, for a moment, nothing. Simultaneously, in a swift, almost magnetic motion, the two were entwined, a mess of arms, legs, lips. With difficulty, the two ended their vigorous embrace; they shared a look of terror. In that moment, their vows had been broken in something as simple, something as pure, as sweet, as innocent as a kiss. A simple as a moment of desire, a moment of passion, they could be destroyed. They did not speak a word, no names were exchanged, no vows, no professions of eternal, undying love, not that night. That night the only sounds to be heard in the crypt were soft murmurs and moans echoing off the stone walls, of rustling cloth, of bodies rhythmically colliding in nearly silent, desperate passion. The two lie spent on the cold stone floor, gazing up at the ceiling. It was Rafael who broke their silence.“We can never do this again.” There was a long pause, the paladin gathered him in his arms, pressing the priests head against his chest, gripping him with all of his might.
The days were long in the twin Cathedrals of Hope and War. For both men, the day was filled with monotony, with prayer, with training. They would steal a glance when they could, from a window, from the training fields, any chance they could. It was their secret, and no one would suspect. Both knew, though, that their actions were dangerous. Were it even so that they were not sworn to the gods of their people, their union would be forbidden.
And yet, they stole away to the catacombs every night they were able. Some nights, they would talk about their lives, their families, what they had done before coming to the Cathedrals to study. Some nights they did not speak a word to one another, and just gave in to their most primal desire, stifling cries of passion and pain. But most nights, they would sit on the cold stone floor; fingers intertwined, backs against the decaying tombs, and say nothing, merely enjoying the presence of one other.
Some nights, they would talk for hours, from the time the Cathedrals fell silent with sleep, until the sun rose, casting the tiniest bit of light into the dark tombs through the few, small windows near the ceiling. Alaric would often speak of his family, his parents, his multitude of siblings, the small farm where he grew up, just outside of the grand city. Rafael always listened, always smiled. He loved to hear the stories, but never spoke of his own family, stating only that he always knew he never wanted to bring a child into the world, and he had always only wanted one thing, to be a priest in the Cathedral. The paladin never pressed him further on the matter.
They continued their secret affair, day after day, week after week. They were certain that their midnight trysts had gone unnoticed, would continue to go unnoticed. Alas, there were whispers. A High priest and a Paladin, men. Together. Where? In the Crypts! Who are they? No one knows! Their visits grew more and more infrequent. Slowly, mercifully, the rumours subsided, replaced by the next scandal, the next bit of gossip. Even so, Rafael noticed a change in Alaric. He grew distant, agitated, anxious. Their late night trysts became even more infrequent, and when they managed to meet, the paladin seemed distracted.
“We cannot do this anymore.” Alaric said one night, kicking around the dust on the stone floors of the crypt, his eyes downcast. His body was tense, every muscle strained as if he were forcing the words from his lips. “Not at all, I mean it this time.” Rafael reached for his hand which Alaric promptly pulled away. “Please, let’s just leave it.” The priest stood silent, his back against the cold stone wall. He watched his paramour with careful eyes, studied his face. Pain was all he could see. Pain, and perhaps fear. “Alaric...” Before the words found their way past his lips, the paladin shoved him hard with one armoured arm, knocking him against the wall. Without another word, he stormed off in a huff, onyx armour glinting in the low light of the catacombs. Rafael choked back a sob and felt his vision blur, his eyelids flutter. He did not even feel himself hit the floor.
Weeks passed. Alaric was sure to avoid anywhere he knew Rafael could be. He could feel eyes on him, always. Always and everywhere, his skin burned, his eyes, his face, and his entire body. They knew, they all knew, his students the rest of the order, they knew. They were judging him, chastising him, he could feel it, he was certain. At night he sat at the edge of his bed in the dull candlelight, head in hands, praying. Praying, with all his heart, begging the god and goddess to help him, make him pure, make him a virtuous paladin. Praying to forget Rafael, praying to forget he had ever felt anything but devotion to his order, to his god. He prayed every night, but neither his god nor goddess seemed to care enough to give him an answer.
Rafael prayed every day as well. He prayed for strength, for guidance. While he sat in silent meditation, he thought of Alaric, his face, his pale eyes, his softly curling brown hair. He had known from the start that they were doomed, he replayed their first night together in his head every night before he slept, every night he heard himself saying, We can never do this again .Every night he wished he would be fortunate enough to forget the words and actions that followed, but every night before he slept, he would feel Alaric’s strong arms pulling him close with all his might, and hear him whisper, I’m Alaric. It was almost too much for the priest to bear.
The next time the two saw each other was months after their impassioned previous encounter. They stood in the Cathedral of Hope dressed in their finest armour, surrounded by scores of Acolytes and Paladin hopefuls waiting to be sworn in to the order. Light poured in through large stained glass windows, bathing the hall in golden light. Alaric glanced at Rafael, though only for a moment. He was bathed in light; his pale hair and complexion causing him to seem to glow. He stood ridged, his face an expressionless facade, as if he were made of stone like the pale statues watching over the temple. Rafael, stoic guardian of the acolytes. The paladin clenched his fists, a feeble attempt to focus on the words of the high priestess rather than his paramour. He could not help but watch Rafael from the corner of his eye, nothing that not once did the priest look in his direction.
The ceremony ended, and newly anointed Paladins and Priests filed out of the Cathedral of Hope en masse. Alaric waited in an alcove near the passage to the crypts, grabbing Rafael by the arm and pulling him in as he tried to pass. “Please,” He whispered desperately, pulling Rafael toward the stairway to the crypt. With some resistance, the priest reluctantly followed him down into the dim crypts where they had spent so many wonderful nights. The paladin pushed the priest against the wall, they stared at each other for a moment, silent, each carefully watching the other, looking for any clue, any sign of reassuring emotion. After a moment, Alaric pressed his lips against the priest’s, pressed his whole body, with all of his might. For a moment, he felt Rafael struggle against him, straining to keep him away, only for a moment. Relinquishing all control, he gave in to their embrace, to their kiss. “You can’t keep doing this to me,” His voice was low, monotone. “Alaric, you said...” Alaric slammed his gauntleted hand against the crumbling stone wall above Rafael’s head. “I take it back, I take it back!” Rafael remained silent, his eyes downcast. The priest merely shook his head. “Please, Rafael, I don’t want any of this, not if it means living without you.” Again, his pleas were met with silence, with tears. “It can never be,” He finally whispered, leaving the paladin alone in the crypts.
Months passed, new acolytes came to the Cathedrals, new paladin trainees. A whole new crowd of faces, a whole new sea of people. Alaric looked every day, scouring the crowd for the slightest glimpse of Rafael, never seeming to find him. Anxiety overtook him, he had to find Rafael, he had to make him understand. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see a life away from the Cathedrals, a life without prying eyes, without fear. But deep down, he felt a nagging fear. He could feel all eyes on him, always. People were watching, they were always watching.
One morning, he awoke to a commotion in the yard between the Cathedrals. Feeling a sudden sense of urgency, he threw on a linen shirt, plain pants, forgoing his usual training armour. The paladin rushed to the training grounds, upon exiting the Cathedral, he was met with a thick crowd of Acolytes, all standing by in horror. He fought his way through the circle of frightened students, stumbling into the open when he managed to reach the centre. A young acolyte sat in the grass, her knees pressed to her chest; she stared glassy-eyed at the open space in front of her. In the centre of the circle was a man, face down in the grass. Alaric ran to the girl, kneeling before her with his hands on her shoulders.
“Child, what happened?”
She did not answer. She just stared, mumbling to herself and shaking her head.
“He told me to,” She stammered, looking up at his face. “He said... He... He said give it all you have, he said... he... he told me to... It was an accident, I didn’t mean...” She buried her face in her arms, sobbing loudly.
Slowly, Alaric got to his feet, turning to face the lifeless body in the centre of the field. With wavering determination, he got to his knees, slowly reaching out to touch the man’s white robed shoulder. For a moment, he closed his eyes, prayed with all of his heart, with all of his soul, that this was some other man. Hoping in spite of everything he had ever been taught, ever believed, that this was some other poor soul, and not who he thought it was. Gently, he brushed the man’s pale, straight hair out of his eyes, and something inside him broke. The paladin fell back into the grass with monstrous cry, his hands covering his face as he choked back sobs.
That was his last day in the Grand City. After his initial shock, he had gone back to his room and packed all of his things. Dressing in his ceremonial armour, he went to the head of the order, and begged him to sever his connection to the divine, to release him from the order. Reluctantly, it was agreed, and Alaric was a paladin no more. Dressed in the clothes of a common man, he left the city on horseback, pulling a wagon behind him with everything precious in his life. He built a small home in the forest, he could see the city if he squinted, but he knew he would never return. Now an old man lives in this small house, in the middle of nowhere. His house is small, plain, empty but for two statues, one of Hope one of War. In a trunk at the foot of the old man’s bed, there is a set of armour, red and onyx, something a young paladin might wear for a special occasion. But these things mean little to the old man. All that matters to him is the worn stone monument behind his home, a simple grave, a simple stone. Only one word can be seen on that headstone; no name, no date, merely Beloved.