Anvil of Iron
Diego looked closely at Ania as she walked with him over to the chairs and sat down next to him. Her expression was more open now than it had been since the day they had walked by the river. There was a sort of tentative hope there, but also a look of mistrust, and almost, of fear. He realized that more than anything right now, he wanted to erase that fear. For her to be afraid of him, of all people, was totally unacceptable, yet he knew that as far as Ania was concerned, he had earned that fear and mistrust. Perhaps I did not handle all this as I should have, he thought, but given what is at stake here and Rodríguez's hatred, I would still do the same if I thought it would protect her.
"I had always thought that I could trust you, Diego," Ania started hesitantly. "I had come to depend on you for the truth." She looked at him questioningly.
"You can trust me, Ania. I have always tried to do what I felt was best for you," Diego answered her earnestly.
"By hurting me, lying to me?" Ania asked accusingly. "How is it ever best to lie? Especially, when you say you love me."
"My only concern was your safety," he stressed. "Have you no idea of the danger in all of this?"
"Danger? Of course, I see the danger. Do you think Bernardo and I can go through the last week and not know the danger? We have both seen very clearly what could happen," Ania insisted. "And, as you well know, we have thought of what might happen to us if we were caught helping you. That did not stop me from helping you this time, and heaven forbid, if it ever happens again, it will not stop me then."
"I do not mean the danger to me. That was something I accepted from the time I got off the ship from Spain. And I do not necessarily mean the danger I brought upon you both when I was hurt." Diego turned and rested his hand lightly on hers as it lay on the table. Then he looked up into her eyes. "Although that is something that I would have spared you if I could. Just the very knowledge of Zorro could bring danger. I tried to protect you from that danger just as I tried to protect my father from it at first." He smiled ruefully. "I seem to have been no more successful keeping you from finding out, than I was with my father."
"Well, if that is the only danger you are referring to, then all the arguments and pain of those days before you were hurt were useless," Ania informed him. "I have known about Zorro for months. I just thought...well, I thought by your actions...I thought surely you would trust me with that knowledge soon if I just waited until you were ready."
Diego gave a short laugh. "It is strange. Both you and Father used very similar words to explain why you did not let me know that you knew sooner. You both said that I would tell you when I was ready. Neither of you seemed to realize that it had very little to do with "being ready". Ania, I have longed so many times to tell you, not just about all of this," he nodded his head toward the chamber where Tornado was, "but, also about how I felt about you. There were times when I came so close to telling you!"
Ania looked thoughtful for a moment. "That day at the river!" she finally gasped, as she remembered his actions and mood of that day. "That's what you were going to say, when I...well, I got silly, did I not?" She shook her head and closed her eyes as she thought with disbelief of the moment on the riverbank when she had sensed his mood change. "When you got serious, I was not sure just how to take it. So I...oh, Dios mío! If I had only kept my mouth shut and done as you asked me, we would not have gone through all the arguments, would we?"
Diego smiled at her. "Maybe not," he admitted, "but then, I would not have some of the memories I now have, of seeing the joy in your expression as you looked at me, of watching the mischief shine in your eyes as you saw a way to tease me. Your playfulness showed your joy in that moment, a joy we both shared. If we had had more time, I would still have told you everything and yet, Bernardo is not to blame for the interruption either. Later, after we visited Rodríguez, I decided that it was a good thing it worked out that way."
"Why? What does that snake have to do with you and me?" Ania's contempt for Rodríguez was evident in her tone, as well as words.
Diego's expression grew serious again. "Everything," he stated solemnly. "Can you not see the danger he presents?"
"But you...Zorro took care of that. We have talked of this before." Ania looked at him in confusion.
"Did he?" Diego asked quietly. "And, if the threat from Zorro was no longer there? If Zorro was in his cuartel, or dead?" He paused as Ania almost visibly cringed at his bluntness. He reached up and gently caressed her cheek. "I am afraid that Rodríguez would turn on you as he has wished ever since you and your family arrived to spoil his fun with your land and silver. You must admit, mi amor, you have not exactly made it easy for him to overlook you either. I cannot truly blame you. I can only imagine how it must be for you to feel certain that he is responsible for what happened to your family and not to be able to prove it. I would want to do something in that situation too, but then, what makes Diego merely indignant, Zorro can take action on. You have not had that outlet."
Ania sat quietly thinking of what he had said. She wanted very much to continue saying and thinking that Diego was wrong, that Rodríguez was no longer a threat to her. However, too many incidents had indicated otherwise. She remembered the pleasure on the capitán’s face when he had almost shot her as she had interfered with the arrest of Manolito, the day Brisa's little one was born. She also clearly heard Rodríguez say in her mind, just before he left the sala the other day, ‘It would grant my fondest wish to find you and Zorro together.’ Still, publicly there was little he could actually do to her. Being a woman did provide some measure of protection. "I know he could take my land,” she said to Diego. “I would hate to lose it, but, somehow, I think that if things had gone so terribly wrong with you, the land would not mean so very much to me anymore.”
Diego looked at her quietly for a moment, thinking of what just that one statement told of Ania's feelings for him. Then he shook his head. "That is not all he could do, Ania. If he decided that you were actively helping Zorro, he could charge you with treason."
"Sí, I know. He all but said that the other day when he came to search the hacienda," Ania nodded. "But, beyond putting me in jail for a while and taking my land, there would be little he could do publicly, and as for privately doing something to kill or hurt me, well, too many people would figure out what he had done. The whole area would be in an uproar if they knew he ever raised his hand to a lady, especially if I lay claim to my kinship. Why, without a clear precedence, he would invite open censure, perhaps, even removal from his post when it became known."
"There has already been precedence set, Ania," Diego interrupted quietly. "And not just for jailing you. He could have you hung for treason as readily as a man."
Ania looked at him wordlessly. "He would not dare!" she finally exclaimed.
"Why? Because you can claim kinship with one of the royal houses?" Diego asked. "Rodríguez would have made anything he did look legitimate long before any inquiry was made into the issue, and even then, you would not be here to refute his charges."
"A woman has already been hung? Here in California?" Ania asked in a shocked tone.
"Sí, in the pueblo of San Francisco," he answered. "I learned about it a few days before you had your confrontation with Rodríguez when you saw him beat Josephat. Ania, I had already, by that time, realized how important you were becoming to me, although my feelings for you have grown far beyond that since then." He looked at her intently. "You have said you love me. All right, then I realize how hard the first few hours after you found me here unconscious must have been for you. Can you not also imagine what went through my mind when I saw how much hatred there was between you and Rodríguez, and I realized what he could do...no, would do...if I let you get more involved with Zorro and he found out?"
Ania remained quiet as she thought this over.
"Querida, with those awful images in my mind, I decided that, no matter what I personally wanted, I had to try to keep you from being in any more danger than you were already in," he continued. "I knew I could not afford to tell you anything."
"But, you did not have to SAY anything, Diego...at least, about your feelings...not as time went on. Neither of us did. I think we fooled most other people, at least, until that last day when we rode into the pueblo and sat in the cantina with Sergeant García," Ania stated. "Even he seemed to see how we felt that day. When we were alone together, I could read it in your eyes. Not always, but enough to know, and I know that you could read me, too. It is like we were playing some kind of a game, dancing around the issue as if we could hide it from ourselves. I was not sure why you started the game, or continued with it, but as long as that was the way you wanted it, I was determined to do it your way."
"Well, that game, as you call it, is over now. I guess the issue now is what to do from this point on," Diego ventured as he linked his fingers gently with hers. "You realize that the more distance you can put between us, the safer it will be for you."
Ania looked at him resolutely, determination glowing in her green eyes. "What we do from this point on? There is only one thing I can see us doing now. Diego, we cannot let Rodríguez control us and that is what will be happening if we let the fear of what MIGHT be keep us from building a life we could have. All of life is a gamble, and the stakes here are worth the risk."
Diego gently reached out, and pushing a lock of her hair back, traced his fingers down her cheek again. His eyes remained worried. "Ania, do you never worry about where your actions take you? You have not even taken time to really consider it. If you do not wish to consider what it would be like for you if Rodríguez did as he well could, then think how I would feel if, by merely making you a part of my life, I put you in such a deadly position."
"But, I do not ca...," Ania began.
Diego gently placed his finger lightly against her lips, stopping her words. "No, Aniasita, we will not make any decisions until I am positive we both have had time to think it over...really think about it, Ania. As I have given you my word, I will go on with Father and Bernardo so that I can set up an alibi, as you suggested. When I return we will talk again. I do not want any kind of answer from you until that time." As Ania tried again to speak, he did as he had done before. Leaning forward, he kissed her, stopping Ania's objections in a most pleasant way.
As he sat back away from her, Ania became aware of her hand resting on the silk of the shirt he was wearing, and for the first time, realized that he was dressed in part of his Zorro outfit. When she had first seen him, his anger and her need for explanations had taken all her attention. "You were coming after me?" she asked in amazement.
"Of course, Ania. Knowing the dangers to Zorro out there, how could you think I would not?" he asked with a gentle smile. "Even though you would certainly have made it difficult for me by stealing my horse!" he teased.
Ania looked down in somewhat embarrassed confusion. "I do not think it even occurred to me that you might do that," she admitted with a shake of her head. "I suppose I had best go get out of these borrowed...."
"...Stolen," Diego interjected with a smile.
"...Uh... stolen clothes," Ania commented.
"Yes, it would be good if my things found their way back where they belong," Diego agreed, with a grin. However, as Ania rose and started to walk away, he stopped her. "Wait. That sword, I do not recognize that. It is not one of mine. Where did it come from?"
"My brother, Felipe, gave it to me," Ania explained as she unsheathed the ornate sword and handed it to him, hilt first.
Diego looked at it curiously. Suddenly, he exclaimed, "I remember seeing this sword once before! I was sitting in a tavern in Spain with some friends. Your brother and some of his friends were sitting at a table nearby. I remember seeing the light reflect off the hilt here and thinking what an unusual design it was. I could hear a little of the conversation. His friends were teasing him about buying a sword for a lady." He smiled up at Ania for a moment. "Your brother merely smiled and said that if they knew the circumstances and the lady, they would understand. Then he put the sword away and the conversation moved on to other things. I always wondered about the lady it was meant for. Now I know. What were the circumstances to which he was referring?"
Diego watched her in concern as Ania looked at him solemnly for a moment. He could sense turmoil and reluctance in her, as if whatever had happened was almost too painful to discuss. He was at the point of telling her that she did not have to tell him if she did not wish to, when apparently, Ania came to a decision about opening up to him and began talking.
"I have always said that my stepmother made me miserable while we were in Spain,” she began. “I know I never said more than that," she paused for a second, and standing, walked a bit away from him, with her back to him. "Leya Montoya was almost like two different people. She could appear sweet and kind, cultured and firm, apparently the perfect choice for the wife of a widower who needed just a bit of help with a wayward daughter and three prideful, mischievous sons. That was the side that my father knew before we were sent to Spain. Yet there was another side to her that few people saw. At first, things went well, but when Papá sent us to Spain during one uneasy time in our area, all that changed. She apparently decided that talking to me was taking too long to effect the changes she wanted. She began beating me. Physically, I did not try to fight back. I recognized that I was after all, the child, and she, the parent. For a while, I even tried to be more obedient. That changed when we reached Spain. There was a nobleman whom Leya took a liking to. She...well...she began playing my father for a fool. I accidentally came upon them together. From that point on I refused to conform to her plans anymore than I had to. The beatings became worse after that."
Diego looked at her, sympathy softening his expressive eyes. "Did you not tell anyone? Surely, there was someone to whom you could have turned."
"I tried to tell a couple of my father's kin. Not about Leya's indiscretions, but about the beatings. It did no good. You must remember, I had already gotten a reputation as the wild one, a rebel. Their advice was to settle down and give her no reason to "discipline" me. I found, however, that Leya also had her own reasons to change me. She wished to marry me off to any young man whose family's influence could advance her own station and prestige. I was determined not to do anything to benefit her. It became a war of wills." Ania's expression showed that she was almost reliving it. So vivid were the memories that it seemed as if it were only yesterday. Slowly, Ania told the story as Diego listened, appalled at what she had gone through.
The Marqués de Casa Calvo had given a fiesta for his daughter one night when Ania was not quite sixteen. All the young señoritas who had been presented at court that year and most of the eligible young sons of some of the most powerful houses in Spain were there. Leya made sure that Ania was prominent among the señoritas. Ania had been in fine form that night, flirting enough to cause some excitement, yet being sure to keep the particular young gentlemen, whom her stepmother was hoping that Ania would attract, aware that she had no interest in them. At one point, Leya herself came over to try to be sure that Ania was behaving herself. Ania had seen an opportunity to lay a verbal trap for her stepmother and had taken it. The Marqués himself was in the circle listening as Leya quite obviously fell into the trap. So complete was Ania's victory this time that Leya had retreated from the dance floor in embarrassment. Ania could not keep the victory from shining in her eyes, even though she realized that she would pay a price later. She had not realized just how high that price would be.
When Leya came to her bedchamber later that night, she had not come empty handed, but with a fancy cane as big around as a man's thumb. As Leya turned and locked the door, Ania caught sight of the cane. Suddenly fearing for her life, Ania had lunged for a poker beside the hearth. Just as she started to turn with it in her hands, Leya struck the first blow solidly across her hand, causing her to lose her hold on the poker. As blows began to rain down upon her, Ania had attempted to shield her face and head. Stumbling backwards, she had fallen striking her head on the hearth. She never knew how many blows there were that night. She felt some, some she did not, as she faded in and out of consciousness. She woke sometime later, extremely ill, locked in her room. After several minutes, she had managed to crawl to her bed but could not pull herself up on it. She knew that her back hurt but she was not aware until much later that the stripes this time would leave scars, so deep were they. As she slipped into darkness again, she began to believe that she had lost her gamble, this time with her life as the stakes.
Later, she was never sure how long, she roused enough to hear a pounding on her door. When she did not answer, the door shook and was kicked inward. Through her double vision, she vaguely realized that a dark-haired man was lifting her. As he called her by name, she realized that it was Felipe. She tried to tell him how glad she was to see him, but could not. When she awakened again, it was to find herself in Felipe's chambers, with a doctor tending her and one of Felipe's friends guarding the door. Where Felipe had gone, she only learned later.
As Ania had listened to the tale later, she thought of Felipe as a raging lion as he stalked back to Leya's wing of the casa grande. There was no stopping him, even though Leya sent her two largest servants to prevent him from coming where she was. One he left bleeding on the floor after the man had the lack of foresight to approach him with a drawn sword; the other he brought down with a punch that sent the man crashing through the door of Leya's chambers. As the door was flung open, Leya tried to scramble over her bed to a hidden compartment for a pistol. Before she could reach it, Felipe had crossed the distance between them, and holding his sword point to her throat, backed her up against the headboard.
For a long instant, the two locked eyes. Leya's were filled with fear, Felipe's with angry fire. As Leya began to beg for her life, he watched her coldly. Finally, he stated a warning in clear terms. "Because you are my father's wife, I will not kill you now," he declared. "But hear me well, Leya Montoya. If I ever find so much as a bruise or tiny cut on my sister again, I will kill you myself and explain to my father later. And make no mistake. I will be seeing her frequently or will have friends stop to see her. If you do not heed my warning, I will know. Do you understand me, Leya Montoya? This will not happen again!" Leya, too frightened to speak, had nodded her understanding. Then, sword still in hand, he had walked back through her cringing servants and none dared to oppose him.
When the magistrate came to his chambers to speak with him about "a disturbance" reported to him, Felipe had brought him in and shown him the reason he had attacked the "lady" of the household. The magistrate agreed that he was justified and refused to go further with the charges.
Felipe asked the magistrate if he had the legal right to take his sister back to Florida himself. The magistrate had reluctantly told him that he did not. Only his father could take Ania out of Leya's custody. Unfortunately, Don Miguel was in Florida and it would take months to get a message to him and more still for him to take action. During that time, Ania would have to stay with Leya. Unfair though it was, it was the law.
For the next week, Felipe was rarely far from Ania's side, often caring for her himself. Only later did Ania learn that he had missed one of the most important fencing matches of his university years in order to do so. When Ania had recovered sufficiently, he reluctantly returned to school. "Never lose hope, Ania," he told her. "You are stronger, by far, than anything life can throw at you. Just promise me you will never let the fire in you go out. It is what makes you so unique. Remember, Leya is not strong enough to put that fire out unless you let her."
When he had returned for his next visit, he had brought her the sword. On its hilt could be seen, if one knew what to look for, flames etched as if hidden by a living vine. The sword represented his faith in the fire in Ania. "Keep it near you, Ania," he had said. "It will bring you luck and courage."'
Ania still stood as if lost in a nightmare world when she ceased speaking. Diego quickly laid the sword on the table and going to her, took her in his arms. He did not speak. Merely holding her, his lips lightly brushed her forehead as he once again laid his cheek against her hair. Ania felt a wonderful sense of comfort and acceptance from this complicated man she had come to love. For once, she did not immediately fear that he pitied her. Maybe with his help, it would not be so hard to forget about and get beyond the past, to build a future built on trust and love. She already knew her decision of what they should do. As Diego wished, she would not say anything more until he returned, but he would not stop her from showing how she felt. Sighing, she wrapped her arms tightly around his waist and let herself bask in the pleasure of their closeness.
Reluctantly, she realized just how long she had been gone from the hacienda. It would soon be morning and she had to be in her room as expected. They were not out of this situation yet. "I will be back in a little while," she said as she slipped away.
As Diego sat back down at the table, he idly examined the engraved design on the hilt of Ania's sword again. No doubt the fire was what Felipe called the strength Ania had within her. He shook his head. No wonder Ania had become the tough little fighter that she was! All the things she had faced, both before and after she had come to California, would have crushed many people. She had become stronger. He smiled as he remembered Bernardo once gesturing about the strength inside her, of how together they would be stronger. His smile faded just a bit. I must not be totally ruled by my heart in this. Just as I told Ania, we both must both consider this carefully, he thought. Like she said, it is a gamble, but the stakes are high, so terribly high.
A few minutes later, Ania walked back in dressed in her own clothes.
Almost reverently, she took the sword from him and replaced it in
its sheath. He watched her, sensing that she was going to do something,
but not sure just what. Without a word, Ania stood
looking down at him. Reaching out, he brought her hand up and
kissed it, expressing with the tenderness of his touch all that he hoped
Ania had heard in his words. He thought Ania was going to speak for a
moment. As he looked up at her, he could see an uncertainty, a shyness, in
her eyes. She gently reached and caressed his cheek, her fingertip
lingering on the spot where an almost-dimple had always enchanted her.
"I love you, Diego de la Vega," she finally whispered. Again,
shyness seemed to almost overcome her.
She hesitated and then, quickly, as if afraid she would lose her
nerve, she bent and kissed him. Then, as if startled by her own unladylike
behavior, she suddenly slipped away and disappeared back up the passage.
Diego smiled as he watched her go. The shyness surprised and pleased him. Every time he thought he knew exactly how she would react in a situation, she did something just a little bit different than he expected. Who would have ever thought that bold, brash Aniasita had any shyness to her? He laughed aloud, out of pure hearts' ease. He realized that, regardless of the decisions ahead, he was happy that there were no secrets between them now...very happy, indeed.