Anvil of Iron
As Ania guided Ventura up to the doorway of the stables, she reminded herself to sit straight and to keep an alert expression on her face. It had been more than thirty-six hours since she had slept any at all and what sleep she had then was restless and fretful. Sleep must wait. Now there is too much to be taken care of, she told herself. She forced herself to move at a leisurely pace as she dismounted, and removed the hares from the back of the saddle. She even took time to smile and chat with the servant waiting to care for Ventura. Everything must look as close to normal as possible as long as she could be observed by anyone, including the de la Vega servants. However, leisurely was hardly how she felt inside. There was only one place she wished to be and every second away increased her anxiety. She longed to run straight to Diego’s side and assure herself that he was no worse. Instead, she walked calmly into the sala door and on into the kitchen area. Smiling and laughing at the cook's amazed expression when she heard that Ania had hunted the hares herself, Ania went through the motions of life as usual. Asking for half of the hares to be stewed immediately, she requested that the other hares to be sent to Brisa and her children.
Ania walked back into the sala, hopeful of entering the passage unseen. Bueno, no one is around, she said to herself as she started across the room to the cabinet. Just as she reached it, Crescensia startled her by coming in from the door leading to the patio. Heart pounding, Ania fought to keep her nervousness from showing and walked back across the room as if she had been merely pacing restlessly.
"Buenos dias, Crescencia. How are you today?" she said with a smile at the middle-aged housekeeper.
"Buenos dias, Señorita Ania. I am well. Gracias!" Crescencia said cheerfully. "I noticed that you have not yet had breakfast. Surely, you must be hungry by now. Come, señorita. Let us get you something to eat."
Ania started to shake her head, but then realized that she might actually do better to try to eat at least a little to appease Crescencia. She and Rosita had been practically hovering over Ania during the last few days, seemingly aware of every bite she took, or more correctly, did not take. Refusing to eat now would only lead to their fretting over her further. I will never get into that passage at this rate! Ania thought. "Yes, thank you, Crescencia. I suppose I could eat a bite now," she finally said with another smile. She allowed herself a longing look toward the cabinet as the housekeeper left to arrange for her place to be set and breakfast served. No, not yet, she told herself. It would be too obvious if I disappear right now. She sighed in frustration, glancing down at the now rumpled riding habit. Well, at least it will give me time to clean up a bit and change clothes, she admitted to herself.
As the servants were preparing her breakfast, Ania casually walked upstairs. Fighting the urge to lie down on the bed for just a little while, she changed into a simple dress. Returning to the portico, she looked down toward Diego's door. Maybe I could use the door in Diego's room, she thought. She had never been in his room, but she had seen part of it through the open door upon occasion. There did not seem to be a great deal of wall space to be searched if one knew that a door was there somewhere. Perhaps she could find it and get downstairs that way.
She walked down the portico, but just before she started to reach for the handle to open the door, a servant came out of one of the other rooms on some errand. Ania pretended to smooth her skirt as the servant walked by. She sighed as she watched another woman walk out and sit under the tree on the patio with a pan and begin working. It seemed that she had a problem that had not occurred to her until now: how to come and go as she needed to with so many other people doing the same thing on business of their own in this house. How in the world has Diego done it for so long? she wondered, shaking her head. Resigned to more delay, Ania went back downstairs for breakfast.
"Señorita Ania," Crescencia asked with a worried frown as Ania forced down her chocolate, "have you seen anything of Don Diego or Bernardo this morning? I know it is not unusual for Don Diego to sleep late, as is his privilege, but Bernardo is usually around somewhere before now. Manuel just told me that their horses are gone from the stables."
Ania nearly spilled her chocolate as she realized that she had forgotten to put the copy of the note she had forged where the servants could see it. "Ah....Oh, yes...Diego left a note last night, but I completely forgot to tell you about it. He and Bernardo have gone on a trip into the mountains, to study something about eagles, I believe he said. They left sometime last night. I had planned to tell you but I decided to leave to go hunting earlier than I originally planned and did not do it. I am sorry if you were worried."
"Oh, that is all right, señorita. So, observing eagles in the mountains?" Crescencia said with a fond smile. "That Don Diego! He has always had such curiosity. Even as a boy...." She stopped suddenly as if wary of speaking out of turn.
Realizing the affection behind Crescencia’s words, Ania smiled at her, "You remind me of the woman who raised me after my mother died. You have been with Diego and his father a long time, have you not?"
Crescencia smiled again. "Oh, sí, Señorita Ania, since before Don Diego was born."
"Well, they are very lucky to have you here," Ania told her.
Crescencia looked pleased. "Thank you, señorita. Well, if you need nothing else, I will go see that everything is going smoothly." She turned at Ania's nod and went out, leaving the younger woman to her breakfast and her thoughts.
As Ania sat listening to the sounds of the hacienda, she realized just how little attention she had ever paid to the activities of the servants before. Through the open window, she could hear bits and pieces of conversations.
Most of the comments centered around a fiesta being given for the wedding of the daughter of one of the local hacendados, Don Cornelio Esperón. Don Cornelio doted on his beautiful daughter, Moneta, and now, as she wed Don Rafael Galvez, he was determined to throw the most lavish fiesta Los Angelinos had ever seen. The gala had already gone on for two days and would continue for another three before the couple would settle down to family life. Feasting and activities were provided for all classes of society. There were races and contests of skill of all sorts all day and most of the night, as well as music and dancing.
Ania and Diego had each put in an appearance early in the festivities, separately. Ania had been in no mood for a party and had not returned after the first day. She was not sure if Diego had gone again, but she did not really think so, with everything that had been happening before last night. As Ania thought about the fiesta, she began to have an idea of how to solve her problem.
When a maid passed through the room on her errands, Ania asked her to have Crescencia return to her. She listened to other conversations as she waited for the housekeeper's return. She began to hear less happy comments as two older servants walked by the window. They had heard rumors that Zorro had been taken, or even worse, that he had been killed. Others joined them as they overheard the news. Soon there was a confused babble of upset voices. Ania determinedly held on to her composure as she heard some of the women begin weeping. Even knowing that he was relatively safe for the moment did not make this easy to listen to. It was a tremendous relief when Crescencia came into the room.
Crescencia stopped, and frowning, listened to the noise for a minute before turning to Ania. "You sent for me, Señorita Ania?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you, Crescencia. Please ask as many of the servants and workers as possible to gather in the patio. There are some things I need to speak with all of you about," Ania requested solemnly. Crescencia immediately did as she was asked.
A short while later, Ania stood by the tree in the patio and spoke to as many of the servants and workers as could stand comfortably around her. "My friends," she began, "there are two things I would like to speak with you about now. The first is that, as some of you know, Don Diego has seen fit to go on a trip for a few days. That leaves only me for all of you in the casa grande to have to care for." Ania smiled ruefully. "Now, I do appreciate it and I want to thank all of you for your service and kindness to me since I came here. However, I feel that it is unnecessary at this time. I will be quite able to look after myself for a few hours, or even more, if the occasion arose. I know that there is a grand fiesta going on at the Esperón rancho and I know that Don Diego and Don Alejandro would want the Rancho de la Vega to be well represented there. I do not think they would mind if I do what I am now going to do. I am suggesting to everyone here that you go and enjoy the fiesta. You that have skills to compete should take part for your honor and for the honor of the Rancho de la Vega. I have no doubt that the races will be ours this afternoon." Ania stopped for a second to smile at the vaqueros whom she knew.
Then she became more solemn. "However, there is also another matter of which I know some, if not all of you, have already heard." Here she paused until all were quiet around her. "As I was riding this morning, I met Sergeant García not far from here. He and Corporal Reyes were following Zorro's trail after he had rescued one of my workers from Rodríguez's clutches. And, sí, I am afraid that it was a blood trial they were following." A disturbed uproar came from those around her. Ania raised her hand for silence. "Things may not be so bad as they seem. I know that, at that time, no one had found him. As long as that does not happen, we can pray that he will come through this as he always has. What I want to suggest is that we do just that, pray for our Dark Angel, that he be preserved and protected. As you are on your way to the fiesta, please stop at the church and light a candle for him. I can not believe that God would not hear our prayers after all the good he has done for us, all of us." Ania’s voice faltered and she seemed to struggle to say more for a second. Her expression clearly showed sadness and concern for Zorro. In fact, she seemed near tears. Then muttering a quick “Gracias”, she turned and reentered the sala. No one was surprised she was upset. It was well known that she had special feelings for the outlaw. After all, many of them had seen Zorro bring her back to the hacienda after having saved her life on two separate occasions. Many of them felt as upset by this news as she. Slowly, the workers drifted away, most to go in the direction of both the church and the fiesta.
For a moment after she closed the sala door, Ania leaned against it and took a firmer hold on her emotions. Her feelings were terribly close to the surface now and she could afford no mistakes. Finally feeling more in control, she walked to a chair in front of the fireplace and wrote a note detailing the "holiday" she was giving the workers on her own land. She also made the same request for prayers for Zorro that she had made on the patio. She indicated that she was not feeling well at the moment and stated that she would come back there when she felt better. The foreman over each part of the Valdéz estate was to see that the necessary work was done, but only what was truly necessary. Other than that, everyone was to enjoy the fiesta.
As she walked out toward the stables, she caught sight of a young vaquero. "Roberto," she called, "please deliver this to one of the foremen at my rancho."
"Sí, Señorita Ania, I will do it on my way to the fiesta," he said cheerfully.
"Gracias, Roberto," Ania said with a slight smile.
For a while, Ania walked around the house and patio. She was afraid to sit down for long, for fear of falling asleep. Everything became quiet as more and more of the servants took Ania up on the chance to go to the fiesta. Finally, Ania went into the sala and after a moment of cautious listening for anyone nearby, she was able to enter the passage.
Bernardo jumped, and clutching a pistol, whirled toward Ania as she suddenly came into the chamber where he sat beside Diego.
"It is just me!" Ania cried as she froze where she stood.
Bernardo lowered the weapon and made a show of wiping his brow in relief.
"Sorry. I guess we really should make some kind of noise or signal before coming in to assure each other that we are friend, not foe," Ania said sheepishly. "I did not mean to startle you."
Bernardo shook his head and smiled.
"How is he?" she asked, kneeling by Diego's "bed". As she looked at him closely, she could see signs of improvement. His color was better and he seemed to be breathing more deeply. When she laid her hand gently against his neck, his pulse was much stronger. He even felt a bit warmer than he had. "Has he been awake at all?" Ania looked up at Bernardo.
Bernardo rocked his hand back and forth in the air. Ania took that to mean that he had been semiconscious at times. Bernardo's expression was worried and Ania could tell that Diego's continued unconsciousness had the manservant very concerned. Ania gave Bernardo's arm a squeeze and tried to reassure him. "Bernardo, he is better. I know how hard it is to see him like this. It is for me too. If he were not getting better, or if he were having seizures as some do who have lost so much blood that they rarely survive, I would be honest enough to tell you it was so. But he is improving. Remember, it is not unusual for those who have lost so much blood to take several hours, sometimes even a day or so, to begin being truly aware of what is going on around them.” Bernardo nodded and Ania was rewarded with a lessening of the worry within the mozo’s eyes. Ania smiled. “I have good news that might help you feel better. Our trick seems to be working," she said. She quickly told him about meeting the two soldiers and how the trail had confused them. Bernardo smiled tiredly and gestured that he would like it to rain. Ania understood what he meant. Rain would destroy the trail totally. Only then could they be completely sure it could not be followed. "Yes, that is one more thing for which we can pray, rain," she agreed.
Ania was filled with relief at the signs of Diego's improvement. However, along with the relief, Ania suddenly felt a wave of tiredness wash over her like a river. She must have swayed slightly, for Bernardo quickly reached out and steadied her.
Bernardo gestured that Ania should get some sleep. At first, she resisted the idea, but after a minute she gave in. She would be no good to Diego like this. She needed sleep to be any good to any of them. Rising to go her room for a few hours, she looked back at Diego and frowned uneasily. She wondered if she was missing something important. I guess it is just that I am so tired, she thought.
"I will be back shortly," she informed Bernardo. Within minutes of returning to her room and stretching out on her bed, she was asleep.
"How could this happen, Sergeant? How could someone as badly hurt as I suspect Zorro was slip through our fingers again?" Capitán Rodríguez stood with his back to the sergeant, hands clenched angrily behind his back. Turning suddenly and leaning across his desk, he brought his right hand down on the oak top with a bang. "I will tell you, Sergeant García. He had help! The peons around here would die to help him if they had to. I saw a peon leave the tavern last night, just after I had informed the innkeeper of the reason for our celebration. I would have stopped him then if I had known there was any way they could help him. It is obvious that they somehow found him before we could and confused the trail with other blood,” he growled. “Of course, that does not mean that we are not rid of him, only that we have no proof of it," he reminded himself aloud.
"Sí, Capitán," García said. "But he may also still be alive." García did not sound displeased by this and Rodríguez scowled at him.
"If he is, we will still get him," the capitán vowed. "Sergeant, have Private León start again at the thicket of trees where you found the most blood and are relatively sure it was Zorro's blood. He is the best tracker we have. It may be that he can sort out the true trail from the false ones." Rodríguez walked around his desk and leaned against it as he thought. "However, if that does not work, we must think of other clues that we may have overlooked until now."
"There is not much, Capitán Rodríguez. No one has been able to figure out who he is for more than three years now," García said. "No one has ever gotten a look at his face, not that I know of."
"Well, think, Sergeant!" Rodríguez frowned again. "There are other things about him than looks that could help us identify him. What are his other characteristics?"
García looked at him blankly. "Well, he is quite tall. He is very broad of shoulder and strong. He does not sound any different than us when he talks. That is not much to go by."
"If he sounds like most of the people in this area, then he was probably born here. I remember something else about his speech. Did you ever stop to try to figure out what level of society he is in?" Rodríguez said thoughtfully.
"No, Comandante, I can not say that I have," the sergeant began.
"No, I did not think so, but I have," the capitán said. "I believe he is of the landed classes and his manner of speaking sounds like one with an education. Whatever else he is, he is no common ruffian. He has all but preached to me upon occasion, and I can attest to the fact that he uses language almost as well as he does that sword of his." He walked around a moment, thinking. "Let us go on an assumption that he would be an hidalgo, and, oh, in his mid-twenties or so. We must keep our eyes open for any young caballero who is suddenly missing. Ask around, Sergeant. Make a list of any who might fit the characteristics we have named. We know he was hurt. He cannot be seen in public while he is marked by an injury. That means he must be out of sight for a while, but where and who?"
"Sí, Capitán. I will ask around, but I cannot imagine a hidalgo here being Zorro," García stated with a shake of his head.
"No, I do not think that you can, Sergeant! Just do it!!" Rodríguez snapped.
"Sí, Capitán. At once!" García saluted and left the room.
Rodríguez sat a long time just staring into space and thinking.
A bare four hours after she lay down, Ania jerked awake and sat bold upright in bed. Eyes wide, she realized that she had been dreaming about Diego. The fact that he had been warmer to the touch when she last checked him leapt out at her. People who have lost enough blood to lose consciousness are also noticeably cooler to the touch. He should not have been as warm as normal, at least not until he was conscious a part of the time. Fear sent a chill through her. "Madre de Dios!" she exclaimed as she quickly got up and began searching the chest for several herbs that were known to fight infections. Please do not let it happen again! she pleaded silently. In the chest, she managed to find two more packs of centuary and one of goldenseal. Both were good, but there was one more that she was desperate to have: goldenrod, or king's staff, as it was sometimes called. Luisa had always claimed that it was the most powerful herb God had ever created against infections. As no packet of goldenrod was found, Ania's search became more frantic. When it was clear that she had none, Ania swore in a most unladylike manner and lay her head down on the edge of the trunk in despair. Do not panic, she told herself. There may be nothing wrong. I may be worrying for nothing.
Quickly, she made her way downstairs and through the passages to the chamber where Diego and Bernardo were. Just before she entered the chamber, she called out to be sure she did not startle Bernardo. She dropped to her knees beside Diego’s bed. “How has he been?” she asked as she looked over at the mozo. Bernardo smiled and gestured that he had been more alert since she had last been there. Ania was pleased to learn as Bernardo continued gesturing, that Diego had apparently managed to take a bit of the watered down wine once.
“Bueno! He has been coherent, then?” This time Bernardo merely shrugged. He indicated that he was not sure. The times when Diego had been conscious had been brief and he had not spoken. Ania gently brushed Diego’s hair back away from his face and laid her hand on his forehead. Diego did, indeed, feel warmer than he should, although not a great deal. She was relieved to feel that he did not yet have a high fever, but enough of one to frighten her nonetheless. Pretending calmness, Ania quickly eased the bandages from his shoulder. The wound appeared a bit angry and the area around it felt hot to the touch. Not wanting to alarm Bernardo, she tried to hide her dismay. Looking up at the manservant, however, she could tell that he had already read her feelings in her face or actions. Bernado began gesturing something quickly to her. Even without the gestures, Ania knew what he wanted to know. The fear for his friend filling his eyes echoed that in her heart. ‘What can we do?’ he wanted to know.
Ania sat silently for a moment, trying to plan a course of action. The area where the infection seemed to be starting was as yet localized. If it could be stopped now, before it had time to spread, they might still be able to keep him with them. They had to have something to give Diego’s body time to fight this off. Hmmmm, I have no goldenrod and very little of any other herbs to fight this. There is no time to pick any, even if I could find any here, she thought. Where might I buy some? Not in an open market surely. It might draw unwanted attention. Maybe another curandera. Yes, that is it! I can go to one nearby and buy some from her.
"Bernardo, is there another curandera near here? I have heard there is an old woman up in the hills," she said. "Could you tell me how to get there, perhaps draw me a map?"
Bernardo cocked his head to the side as if to ask why.
"The wound appears a bit angry. With an herb called goldenrod, I can possibly head off any infection before it can get any worse. I plan to buy some if I can," she explained. "I will have to be the one to go for it. You may be seen if I ask you to go."
Bernardo looked disturbed by this, but after thinking a moment, he agreed that it would be the wisest course. Getting a sheet of paper, he carefully drew a map to show her the paths to take to the homes of two curanderas, a gypsy and an old Indian woman. The Indian woman was the closer of the two. With a final look at Diego, Ania went back out to the stables and turned Ventura toward the mountains.
Ania sat for a moment and looked at the cabin before her. It was not large and was humble enough that one would have to stretch to apply the word 'casa' to it. There was probably no more than one room here. Yet there was an odd feeling to the place, almost a supernatural feeling to the air. Perhaps that feeling came because she had heard that the old woman was something of a fortuneteller, who claimed to be able to tell all manner of things about you just by looking at you. I have listened too much to the servants' tales, Ania told herself firmly. She will be just an old woman with some herb lore. There will be no magic involved, anymore than when I treated the people on the plantation. Ania urged Ventura forward, and dismounted. She stood staring at the rough wood of the door for a long moment, before raising her head, straightening her back and forcing herself to knock.
An old woman with silver streaked black hair opened the door and peered out. Her dark eyes and high cheekbones told of her Indian parentage. Her eyes seemed to be focused on something around or behind Ania, rather than at her, giving Ania an urge to look back to see what was there.
"Sí, dama. What is it you seek?" the old curandera inquired.
"I come seeking herbs, señora," Ania replied politely. "There are some of which I have need, but do not have. I have not lived in California long and do not yet know all the plants here so that I can pick them myself. I was told that I might be able to buy what I need from you."
"Sí, your need is indeed great, dama. Come in and we will talk further," the old one said with a knowing nod.
Ania hid her surprise at the woman's choice of words. Smiling and nodding her thanks, she stepped into the single room of the somewhat cluttered cabin. She expected the old woman to ask her which herbs she needed, but instead, the woman merely stood looking at her with her unfocused gaze.
"You come for king's staff," the woman said suddenly.
Ania swallowed hard and clasped her hands together to keep their shaking from being noticed. How does she know? went through her mind as she waited. She had already decided that it would be unwise just to ask for herbs that would fight infections. She would hide the real need among the false ones. "Sí, that is one of the herbs that I came for, but there are others. I need centuary, San Juan's wort, and balm as well."
Now it was the woman's turn to stand motionless. Ania had the disconcerting feeling that the old woman was looking deeply within her, reading her just like a book. She forced herself to meet the woman's gaze and wait calmly. "Come and sit by the table," the old one finally said. "I will tell your fortune."
"Oh, gracias no! I really do need to get back to my business as soon as possible," Ania started to object.
"Come," the old curandera interrupted and gestured to one of two chairs in the room. Ania followed her gesture, and realizing that nothing further would be accomplished until she did as the woman requested, she walked in and sat on the edge of the nearest chair.
"I have brought gold to pay for the herbs." Ania tried to redirect the conversation again.
"The herbs will be there when needed, señorita," the old woman said quietly. Taking Ania's hand, she turned it palm up in front of her.
This is nonsense! Ania told herself, even as she found herself holding her breath as she waited to see what the woman would say.
"There is much darkness and shadows around you, señorita," the old woman began. "You have already passed through some of them and they have worked their changes both on you yourself and the life you now lead. You carry with you now a fear, not for yourself, but for one you hold dear." Ania tried to pull her hand free now, but the fortuneteller merely pulled it more firmly toward her. "There may be joy ahead for you, señorita, but to get there you will both pass through the fire. There is no guarantee that either of you will come through without paying the price. This dark man who carries your heart, also carries a heavy secret that will demand much of you and he...."
At this, Ania, at last, managed to twist her hand free and jerk it aside. "Thank you, that will be enough," she gasped, shaken to her core by how close the old woman was coming to things in Ania's mind. "I really do need to be going. I will be needed. As I said, I have brought gold to pay for any of the herbs you will spare me."
The woman regarded her with her dark eyes for a moment, then smiled. "As you wish, dama." Rising, the old woman went to a nearby cabinet and removed several packets of herbs.
Ania was relieved to recognize the dried yellow flowers of the king's staff. The flowers made the most potent medicine for use on wounds and infections. She could not have hoped to have better luck than to get them. Now to get this back to where it is needed! Quickly, Ania pulled out the bag of gold she had brought with her, and as the woman pushed the packets across the table to her, Ania spilled the entire contents of the bag on the table in front of the woman. Better to pay too much than to have to spend more time in this woman’s presence!
"Thanks you for your help, señora," Ania said as she hurriedly stood to go. "I will remember your kindness."
The old woman stood at the door and watched as Ania mounted and turned Ventura back to the lower lands and home. As soon as she was out of sight, Ania kicked the horse into a fast canter. For once, getting back to Diego was only half the reason for her haste. Ania found that she was very glad to be putting distance between herself and this place. Very glad, indeed!