Anvil of Iron
Ania was once again pleased to be able to return to her room unseen. A week ago it had been her fear she was afraid she would be unable to hide; now it was her great joy. Right now, between the keyed up feeling left from her ride as Zorro and her excitement over Diego's words, Ania felt like dancing or singing or anything but lying down quietly in bed and going to sleep. Perhaps the warmth of some chocolate will settle me down enough to sleep, she thought. Quietly, she made her way down to the kitchen and began to make the chocolate, humming as she worked.
She thought over all the things Diego had said. Everything is finally making sense now. I was not wrong before. He loves me! Ania told herself ecstatically. She found herself grinning widely as she stirred the chocolate. Then she sobered a bit as she remembered what he had said about the woman in San Francisco. She knew Diego was right. Rodríguez was quite capable of doing just as he feared. The possibility of being hung was hardly a pleasant thought. Yet, as she considered what Diego had said about putting distance between them, she rejected that even more strongly. She could not see ever being able to go back to the way it was, with no one but those closest to them knowing how they felt, pretending only friendship. To live in her own hacienda, with him here, to see him, but not be with him. No! To build a life together was a gamble, to be sure, but one with which she was ready to take her chances.
She remembered Diego saying that they both must think carefully of what to do now. She bit her lip thoughtfully. He could still send me away if he chooses, all in the name of protecting me. I cannot let him do that, Ania told herself. I will just have to find good, solid reasons why that would not be best. Just because it is what I want will not be reason enough to change Diego's mind, I am sure. All right, Diego. You said we are to think about the situation. Well, I will. You don't want any answer now. Fine, but all the time you are gone, I will be planning what to say to you to get you to see it my way. This is one debate I must win! At least, you have answered all my questions now, so I know where to start.
Yet, even as she thought of it, she remembered one question that had not been answered, one she truly wanted to have answered. Looking at the amount of chocolate she had just made, she realized that she had plenty for two people. Since his food had no doubt been cold by the time he had gotten to eat, perhaps he would like some of the chocolate as well, while it was hot. It would give her another logical reason to go back down tonight. Ania looked toward the windows and listened carefully. Hmmmm, there is probably still an hour or so before dawn and none of the servants are about yet. There should be plenty of time for one more short visit. Quickly, Ania placed two cups of chocolate on a tray and cautiously went back through the secret door.
Diego smiled as he finished brushing Tornado. It seemed that Ania had forgotten all about the job in the excitement of the moment. "You can not blame her for being forgetful, Tornado. I would probably have forgotten about it, too, if I had not practically been your roommate, boy. It will be good to get out into the larger world again. No offense, boy, but I am getting just a bit tired of your company. What do you think of that?"
"If he ever answers you, let me know," a voice said from behind him. "I probably have some questions for him myself."
"Ania! I did not expect you back until later. Are you not going to get some sleep?" Diego smiled brightly at her in obviously pleased surprise.
For a moment, Ania could only smile back and think just how much she had missed that delightful grin. Ah, I cannot be always going into a trance every time I see him, she scolded herself. Keep it light. "I do not seem to be sleepy right now. Must be a touch of that insomnia you have always been troubled with. I cannot imagine why," she said aloud innocently, hiding a smile. "Anyway, I fixed some chocolate and I decided you might like some while it is hot."
"Well, it would be nice to have something while it is hot for a change. I can not imagine what has gotten into the servants," he said in mock seriousness, as he washed his hands in a nearby basin and came to sit at the table. He cocked an eyebrow at her as he continued. "Why, do you realize that they have actually had the nerve to bring my meals while I was sleeping?"
Ania tried to keep a straight face. "Shocking, señor! I shall most certainly speak to the serving staff about it. I do not think it will be a problem from now on."
"Well, I should hope not!" Diego affected a proper manner. Then, grinning mischievously again, he suggested, "It might be nice to see that little serving girl a bit more as well. It would improve the scenery, I am sure."
"Oh? Well, I will be sure to tell her that you prefer her looks to those of Tornado and Paseo. I'm sure she will be thrilled!" Ania quipped.
There was laughter in Diego's eyes as he looked up. "Shhhhh! We would not want her to become conceited, now would we? Beside, you might hurt Tornado's feelings."
Ania finally gave up trying to keep a straight face. "Diego, just drink your chocolate," she laughed. She watched him pull his cold food over and start eating again, as he drank the hot chocolate.
Without warning, Ania said quietly, "Who is Anna María?"
Diego looked up, startled, to see that Ania had become serious, a look of insecurity and unease in her eyes. "What?"
"Anna María, who is she?" Ania repeated.
"Oh, I see. I talked out of my head a bit, did I?" he said as he put his cup down again. "I vaguely remember dreaming of her. What did I say?"
"Nothing really. You just called her name," Ania answered, her eyes never leaving his face. "Is she someone I should know about, someone who is important to you?"
Diego was quiet for a short while. "Was important is more accurate, I think, Ania," he finally said. "It was a long time ago, more than a year before you came here. She was someone I knew in Monterey."
"Oh," Ania said, "Monterey." She sat in deep thought for a moment. "Sergeant García mentioned something about Monterey the last time we were both in the cantina with him, something to the effect that he had not seen you so happy since you made that trip to Monterey."
"Sí, he said that," Diego admitted.
"Was this Anna María the reason for your happiness there?" Ania asked.
Diego was silent as he tried to decide how best to explain about Ana Maria and all the complicated set of circumstances that could have set his life on quite a different path.
"Yes...yes, she was," he finally said.
"Did you love her?" Ania asked bluntly.
"Well, I certainly thought I did," Diego said, not quite sure how to answer.
The look of unease deepened in Ania's eyes. "Would I be terribly out of line to ask you to tell me about her?"
Diego looked at her and slowly shook his head. "No, I do not suppose you would be out of line at all," he finally said. He then began telling her of a trip he had made to Monterey on official business for the pueblo de Los Ángeles, and of how he had become involved with this young woman, the daughter of the man he was to do business with. Despite a rocky start, he was attracted to her and soon began to spend time with her. However, not far into the relationship, Zorro became entangled in the problems which arose, and he had to help both Anna María and her father. Anna María became infatuated with Zorro. To his dismay, he found that she considered herself to have fallen in love with Zorro, yet clearly would accept no more that friendship from him. He had extended his stay in Monterey and continued to see her. He described a rivalry between himself and a friend for Anna María's attention.
Ania shook her head as he told of his friend, Ricardo's practical jokes. "Diego, you amaze me. How could you forgive him so readily? He certainly deserved a good trouncing for at least a couple of those asinine tricks he pulled. If you had been like my brothers, he would have learned a hard lesson, indeed, I am afraid."
"Ah, but Ania, I got in a few tricks of my own," Diego smiled as he remembered. "In fact, one of my tricks nearly got him killed. He would have been hung for being Zorro had not the real Zorro shown up."
"They thought he was Zorro?" Ania asked puzzled. “How could they?”
"It is a long story. It was a trick of his that I had thought I would turn back on him." Diego looked down at his plate and shook his head. "Only, the comandante there refused to believe that he was not Zorro. Still it all worked out, although he wound up challenging Zorro to a duel."
"Let me get this straight," Ania said as she became involved in the story. "Zorro saved his life, then he challenged Zorro to a duel? Well, I know now why he was always pulling tricks. The man was an idiot and an ungrateful one, at that!!"
Diego laughed and continued. He told how Ricardo had actually helped him escape a trap that day after he had defeated him in the duel and how Ricardo had gone on to talk the governor into offering Zorro amnesty if he would surrender. "I thought at first that I would not take it. I knew what I did was important. But then Anna María let it be known that if Zorro came at the appointed hour, she would go right then and marry him."
"You decided to reveal yourself, to no longer be Zorro?" Ania found it hard to believe.
"Sí, for her I think I would have done almost anything, at that moment," Diego said, stressing the last three words. He could sense that Ania needed the truth, but he was not sure exactly how it would make her feel. "I went back to where we had a horse hidden. Tornado, of course, was not with us. I fully intended to dress in the costume for the last time and ride in to give myself up."
Ania looked at him solemnly for a minute. "What happened? Why did you not go to her and have Zorro claim her?" she finally asked.
"Well, when I got to where I was to change, I found Bernardo bound. I took an instant too long to take in the situation and react. Someone jumped me from behind and knocked me out. I came to, with my own hands bound behind me and a man in a full mask and hood standing in front of me. He did not speak, just stood there with a drawn sword. I kept asking him questions and finally tricked him into coming close to me with a dipper of water. I managed to knock him down and cut the rope on my wrists enough to get my hands free. During the fight that followed, the man's mask came off and I saw that it was my father," he explained.
"Don Alejandro? But, Diego, why would he go to such great lengths to stop you? Why did he not just tell you right out?" Ania asked.
"He had wanted to stop me from surrendering, but he was trying to do it in such a way that I would not realize that he knew about my double life," Diego explained.
"I do not understand," Ania said with a frown.
"He said almost the same thing you said. He thought I would tell him about Zorro when I was ready. He said that he did what he did so that I would not do something that I would regret for a long time," he continued.
"Did you understand him?" Ania asked quietly.
"Not really. I just knew that he felt that what Zorro did was too important for me to put my own wishes ahead of what I did. I remember feeling torn as I heard the bells ring, ending the hour I had to turn myself in, and knowing that my chance to have the kind of life I had longed for was gone. Every toll of the bell felt like a bar I had put up in a prison of my own making. Although I was able to explain to her later about remaining an outlaw for all the people who depended on me, it was a while before I truly accepted it myself." Diego fell quiet as he finished his narrative.
"Have you ever thought about going back?" Ania asked as she watched him closely.
"I did for a while, but I eventually decided that it had worked out for the best," he said. "Zorro continues to be needed. I could not have her and do what I must."
"Would she not have accepted that if you had explained it?" Ania asked. "After all if she loved you...."
"She did not love me. She loved Zorro," he corrected her. "No, I do not think so. I decided it was best left alone."
"What do you think now, about Anna María, I mean?" Ania's eyes held his. He knew she was trying to read the truth of what he was saying here.
Diego reached over and took her hand. "I think I am very lucky to have a father who was not blinded by the desire I am sure he had for me to be safe, rather than riding around risking injury or worse each night. My thinking I would only be happy if I gave it up did not blind him. He knew me better than that. Over the past year I have come to know it worked out for the best, too, because the future held the promise of even more wonderful things. Had I accepted amnesty, Zorro would not have been there to stop that man from killing you and you would not now be a very precious part of my life," he said.
As he watched Ania, he was relieved to see the worry and uncertainty leave her eyes. "Now, Ania, I have a question I need to ask you. What is it you expect me to do? Do you, like Anna María, wish for me to stop being Zorro or are you truly willing to risk perhaps going through something similar to what happened this time again in the future?" He watched her intently as he waited for her answer.
As the seconds passed and Ania still remained silent, as if considering her answer, Diego began to feel that he knew what she was going to say. His heart sank. Ay! he thought. It is going to happen again. She will want me to give it up. Truly, she has more reason to want that than anyone else.
Finally Ania looked up and surprised him, "No, I would never ask or expect that of you. Oh, I would do a great deal if it meant that I could be sure I would never have to see you hurt again. We were very afraid for you the other night." She paused for a moment. "But I cannot ask that. How can I when I know, by my own experience, what it is to be looking death in the face and have Zorro appear, from out of nowhere, to save me? Can I say that the next person who needs Zorro's help is not as important as I was? How can I say the common people do not deserve to be helped? The other day when I rode for the herbs, on the way back, I stopped in the church to pray. When I entered the sanctuary, it was as if I had stepped into a constellation of stars. Diego, there were candles literally everywhere there was space for them, and every one represented a prayer for Zorro. Luisa taught me that God puts us where we are for a reason. God gave these people a Dark Angel to give them hope, as well as help. I could not take that from them. Hope is all some of them have. Nor do I think you could actually give it up if I did ask."
"Why do you say that?" Diego asked, surprised.
"Because you would be too unhappy. You would die a little bit each time you heard of a person suffering whom you could no longer help. Knowing that they had no one to help them, and that you could have but did not, would be deadlier to the person you are inside, than all the close calls you will ever have as Zorro. As long as Zorro is needed, he will be here. Diego de la Vega could not live with himself if he was not." Ania looked at him tenderly. "Diego, your life is more important to me than my own, but your happiness is even more important to me than your life."
Diego looked at her in amazement. He had not expected her to think as much about the question as she had apparently done. To analyze him so well, she must have been thinking of the issue long before their discussion at the river. Perhaps she was not nearly so impulsive with her decision about their future as he had thought. He knew what she would say if he asked for her answer now, and were he to listen to his own heart, he knew what he wanted. Silently, he rose and walked around the table. As he cupped her cheek with his hand, she reached up, and gently grasping his hand, pressing it more closely to her. She smiled, her eyes shining with the love filling her heart, as he started to speak, "Ania...."
Suddenly, from the entry chamber, came the sound of someone moving about. As Ania stood up from the chair in alarm, Diego quickly pulled her behind him and reached for a pistol lying nearby. Silently, he gestured for Ania to remain where she was. Moving with catlike stealth to the archway between the chambers, he stepped through.
Bernardo smiled broadly as he caught sight of his patrón. Diego, while still pale, was looking much stronger and more himself than when the manservant had left to go for Don Alejandro. It was good to see him apparently so much improved.
As Diego lowered the pistol in relief, he saw Don Alejandro standing just behind Bernardo.
In four long, rapid steps, Don Alejandro reached his side. Being careful of Diego’s bandaged shoulder, his father threw his arms around him and cried, “Diego, my son, you do not know the joy it gives me to see you standing here. I am very relieved to see you! I do not think either of us had any hope of seeing you apparently so much improved." Stepping back and looking him up and down critically, he asked, “How are you really, Diego?”
Diego smiled reassuringly at his father. He had seen Don Alejandro's eyes linger on his injuries, covered though they were by bandages and a sling. He placed his right hand on his father's shoulder. "I am all right, Father, or I soon will be. I have been well taken care of. Ania and Bernardo have seen to that."
As Bernardo walked up, having finished unsaddling the two horses and feeding them, Diego turned to him and clapped him on the shoulder. "It is good to have you back, Bernardo. You made good time, did you not? I was not expecting you to return before tomorrow. Have you taken no time to rest on your journey?"
Bernardo nodded that he had, but Alejandro looked at him and smiled, "He has probably had very little, Diego. He has been quite anxious about you, as have I. Ah, but it is good to see you up on your feet, son! You seem to be regaining your strength much more quickly than we had dared to imagine. Still, I am surprised you took the chances you did last night," he commented.
"Last night? What do you know of last night?" Diego looked from one to the other in surprise.
"We met a couple of peons headed north. They told us how you prevented a group of men from being sent to the mines. They told us quite a story. I must say, I cannot see how you would have been able to do half they said," Alejandro told him.
Diego looked puzzled as he watched Bernardo gesture something about a mountain and…an explosion? What was he referring to? "What is this about an explosion?" he asked.
"The peons said that you blew away half of a mountainside to block a road," his father answered. As Bernardo pointed to Tornado and gestured jumping something high, Alejandro continued, "They also think Tornado is quite a jumper. They say you led the lancers into a closed canyon with 10-foot barriers at each end. What is the truth of it? Just how high were those barriers?"
"Barriers? Explosions?" Diego turned toward the inner chamber sternly, his voice showing some of the alarmed anger he had shown before. "Ania Cristina Valdéz...."
Ania was nowhere to be seen. Diego stepped into the chamber, and looking toward the passageway, shook his head. Just what did Ania do last night, anyway? he wondered in exasperation.
In midafternoon, Diego sensed someone behind him as he sat at the table while his father and Bernardo slept. Turning, he saw Ania standing a few steps away with a saddlebag full of food. "I had the cook at my rancho prepare extra food, supposedly for someone I was sending off on business. Hot it is not, but it is enough to feed all three of you without the servants getting suspicious," she said without meeting his eyes.
Diego looked at her with a serious expression on his face. "Come here, Ania. I want to talk to you again. Well, come on. I am no longer angry enough to bite. But if I am to get credit for whatever you did last night, do you not think I should know what it was you did?"
"I suppose so," Ania said quietly. “You know, I really did plan on telling you, just not all at once.” She still looked very uneasy, as if she no longer knew what to expect of him if he was angry. Knowing what she had gone through in her past, he now understood where that mistrust had come from. He decided that he must do something to ease her mind, to show her that her trust was not misplaced. As she walked to the table, he rose, and ever so gently, kissed her. Pulling her to sit beside him, he said, "Do not ever be afraid to tell me anything, Ania. You will never be able to make me so angry that I would stop loving you.” He smiled at the wonder in her eyes. "Now, confess. Just what craziness did go on last night while you were wearing stolen clothes and riding a stolen horse?"
Ania laughed as she recognized the teasing behind the words. Tentatively, at first, and then with more of the excitement that she had felt, she described her ride of the night before.
Diego closed his eyes and shook his head as she described her use of the blasting powder. "Ania, you did not have any idea at all as to how big an explosion that would cause, did you?" He covered his face and groaned as she shook her head and admitted that she had not a clue. "Mujer, I shall be as gray as my father if you ever do this again. And I thought I kept my guardian ángel busy!!" But his eyes sparkled with amusement as well, as he looked back at her. "All right, now about this jumping you put Tornado to. Just how high was it? The peons told my father that the barriers were ten feet high."
"Oh, no! They were only seven feet. Well, maybe eight or maybe a little more," Ania said with a smile. "He truly cleared it easily!"
"Oh, only seven or eight feet, or a little more," Diego repeated with a bit of sarcasm. "You did give Tornado a bit of a workout, did you not?"
"Well, it seemed that I had very little choice. Ah...it was...our only way out," Ania admitted as she watched Diego closely.
He shook his head again. Then he leaned forward and took her hand. "I want you to promise me that you will never take such chances again. I would, also, like to know that Tornado will not be stolen from under my very nose, and by someone I trust, at that."
"What? And miss the chance to see if you will have hair as white as your father's?" Ania smiled and raised an eyebrow.
"Ania," Diego said sternly.
"Well, all right," Ania agreed, "if you will promise me that you will never again be hurt so badly that someone must take your place."
"Ania! I am not teasing now!" Diego frowned at her.
"Very well," Ania sighed. "I will promise never to do more than I must."
"Ania..." Diego began and then sighed, realizing she could talk in circles all day. "Ay, mujer, I shall be loco as well as white haired if this goes on much longer."
Ania merely smiled. After a moment,
Diego smiled, as well.
After full dark that night, Ania stood watching the horses being readied for the ride into the mountain area. The men had settled on the small hamlet of Río Madre, containing all of twenty people, mostly Indian families and more importantly, no doctor. It would not do for a doctor to examine Diego's shoulder and realize that the injury was not fresh. Also, they had planned to say that Diego had broken his collarbone so as to give Diego an excuse to wear the sling a bit longer when he came home and Zorro began riding again. When Ania had come down a bit earlier, she had brought a final tool to aid in the act. She had brought a vial of lotion with which she had mixed finely powdered blue flowers of some sort of herb. With varying amounts of a green powder, the appearance of a bruise could be created when rubbed on the skin. "If you fell down the side of a mountain, you would, after all, have more than one injury," she reminded Diego.
"Sí," he agreed, "but where did you learn to do this?"
Ania smiled, remembered mischief lighting up her eyes, "Well, let us just say that Juan and I found that we were punished less for our little adventures if we were hurt just a bit in carrying them out."
"And it worked? You got out of trouble?" Diego asked with a smile.
"Sí," Ania confirmed with a little shrug, "at least until Luisa learned to wash our hurts before giving any sympathy."
Diego laughed. "What a fine pair you must have been! It is a wonder your father was not totally gray-haired."
Ania merely laughed with him and shrugged again. She could hardly deny that.
As they mounted up, Diego looked back at Ania and held her eyes for a long moment. He wished he could do more, but he had decided that he did not wish to answer any of the questions his father would ask if he let his feelings show more plainly. That could come later, after he and Ania had come to a decision.
"Vaya con Dios," Ania said.
"Be careful, Ania, and remember what I said, all of it," he replied.
"Oh, I will and do not worry about me. I will be fine," she said as she smiled up at him as he sat on Paseo’s back.
After they had ridden for a few minutes after leaving the cave, Diego found that he had not hidden things completely from his father. "Is there anything you wish to tell me, Diego?" Don Alejandro asked, his eyes shining with delight.
Diego laughed, as he shook his head, "Patience, Father. Patience."
Ania stood in the cave for a few minutes after they had ridden out. She sighed with relief. Although she was losing her fear that Rodríguez would return now, she was glad Diego had gone with Bernardo and Don Alejandro to establish that needed alibi. He would be safer, and in the long run, be free once again to help those who needed him. Smiling as she thought of what the future might hold, she returned to her room and for the first time in more than two weeks, slept the deep, peaceful sleep of the untroubled.