Anvil of Iron
Diego de la Vega tried to concentrate on the fencing exercises he had set for himself. The lamplight flashed along the length of the blade as it swished through the air. He ran through a precise series of movements designed to keep his muscles strong, flexible and ready to respond in any way necessary to dominate Zorro's opponents. Concentration was not coming as easily as usual for him.
He had, over the last few days, tried to become less involved with Ania, not because it was what he wished to do, but because he felt it was the best thing for her. It was proving to be both more difficult and more painful than he had imagined. They both seemed to have stepped over a line where their feelings were in control and both had begun to acknowledge the extent of those feelings, even if no commitment had been discussed. Those feelings seemed to be like the genie in "Arabian Nights", once released almost impossible to put back into the bottle.
It had not helped matters that his father had gone on a cattle-buying trip to Don Natan de Avilés' hacienda, just north of Santa Barbara. While Don Alejandro had been looking forward to the trip as a time to renew old friendships, as well as to conduct business, it had left Diego with more time alone with Ania than he truly wished just now. As one would expect knowing Ania, she was not one to quietly let the closeness which had grown between them slip away without fighting for it. Her questions and the hurt he had so clearly caused her was very hard to take.
He executed a forceful ballista and lunge as he thought about the struggle of the first day or so after he had come to his decision of what he must do. He had played his part well as Ania came to supper the night after their excursion into Los Ángeles. He had seemed distant and preoccupied, all but uninterested in Ania or her activities. Watching the expression in Ania's lovely green eyes go from surprise, to puzzlement, to hurt over the next few days had been one of the hardest things he had ever had to do. The only time in recent years to compare had been the turmoil in his relationship with his father during the first year he had been back from Spain. Don Alejandro had made no secret of his puzzlement and disappointment in the spirited son he had sent off only to have return a seemingly weak, bookish pacifist.
After the first couple of days, Ania had had less to say, but her emotions were just as clear. The last two nights she had taken her supper in her room, although he did not think she had really eaten. He had heard Crescensia scolding Ania in a motherly way that she must eat more. Ania had merely closed her door without a word. Ania was once again gone for extended lengths of time, riding Ventura fast and hard across her land, although she was perhaps more mindful of Ventura's safety than she had once been. When he did chance to see her, it was with the facade of the cool dispassionate ranchera she had so often seemed when she had been holding her grief inside over the loss of her father and brother. Others perhaps thought this was the real Ania, cool, self-confident, in control, but he knew better. The facade was a wall that he had once prayed that Ania would drop so that he could get to know her better. Now he, himself, was responsible for that wall going back up. The sword whistled through the air again as he executed a series of sudden decisive movements ending with an unusual backhand movement which would more than likely have ended any opponent's resistance.
A vision of Ania as she had been on the bank of the river the other day appeared in his mind. He ached as he remembered how happy they had both been. A wave of self-directed anger swept over him as he realized just how far this situation was from what either of them wanted.
Why could nothing be simple for him and those he loved? Had he truly traded any chance of personal happiness for the ability to help the people of California? He straightened up and gave up any pretense of practice as he tossed his sword onto the tabletop nearby. "Dios mío! What a mess!" he said aloud.
Only then did he realize that Bernardo was standing quietly against the back wall watching him with a look of concern in his dark eyes.
Diego tried to put a good face on things. "Come, Bernardo," he said with a smile. "I seem to need a good workout. Get your sword and let us have a friendly match. You are getting good enough to give even Zorro a bit of practice." He was surprised when Bernardo just shook his head.
'You,' Bernardo gestured, 'already have an opponent!'
"A rival? An opponent?" Diego asked, correctly guessing the word but not the meaning behind the gesture.
Bernardo gestured at Diego to indicate 'you' and then mimed fencing or fighting and then pointed at Diego's chest at heart level.
Diego realized that Bernardo did, indeed, know him well. "I am fighting myself, my own heart?" He walked over to the table and toyed with the sword as it lay reflecting the lamplight. "Yes, I guess I am." Diego sighed and leaned wearily against the tunnel wall. He shook his head. "Bernardo, things just seem so crazy. Sometimes it seems that instead of my inventing and controlling Zorro, things are just the opposite. Zorro has become the master here. There is one thing that I want more than any other now and, yet, that is the one thing I dare not do. "
Bernardo gestured again at Diego and then made a circular motion in front of his mouth to indicate talking. He then made his gesture for Ania.
"You, like Father, think I should talk to her about all this?" Diego spread his arms wide to indicate the cave and by inference, his secret. "How can I do that, Bernardo? What if I did and then something happened? Say I was caught. Could you protect her from Rodríguez?"
Bernardo thought for a minute, taking Diego's question seriously. Finally, he nodded and then gave a small shrug. His face showed uncertainty, but as he nodded again, it was clear that, should it come to that, he would try his best to do just that.
Diego placed his hand on Bernardo's shoulder. "Yes, my friend, I know I could trust you to try to help her if she needed it and I could not, but you are wise to be uncertain of being able to do so." Diego looked troubled. "As long as she remains here, in this house, Rodríguez would be quick to decide that she had taken part in all this too, if he ever discovers our little game." He walked back over to the table. "It is better this way. Soon she will move into her own hacienda and as long as we are not involved, she will be safer."
Bernardo looked at his young patrón and shook his head. Diego was leaving something out of the equation. He thought for a moment. What he had to say was a hard concept to put into words, much less gesture. Finally, he held out his hands, each with fingers folded so that the hands were different. Then he made a show of looking at each and apparently choosing one over the other. He gestured the sign for Ania and then looked at Diego.
"You think she ought to have the choice?" Diego asked.
Bernardo nodded yes and continued gesturing. 'There is strength in this one,' he indicated. He joined his hands. 'Together, you will be stronger!'
Diego's voice took on a bitter quality. "Yes, we would be stronger, right up until the minute I get her killed." He shook his head and then pushed an unruly lock of hair away from his forehead.
Bernardo gestured again. 'Think about it,' he indicated.
"Oh, I'll think about it. I doubt I'll think about much else for a long time," Diego said as he picked up his jacket and prepared to leave. He sighed. "A very long time."
Ania walked among the vines of the vineyard. To all appearances, she was inspecting the vines to keep track of the new growth. In actuality, her mind was far from the mundane chores that she must do.
What went wrong? she asked herself for the hundredth time in the last five days. What did I do? It rarely occurred to Ania that the problem might not have been with her.
Even as much hatred as she harbored against her stepmother, many of the things she had taught, or rather, beaten into Ania at the age of fourteen to sixteen years old had stuck with her into adulthood. Pointing out faults in Ania's personality had been a day-by-day, continual ritual. Leya Montoya y Valdéz harped continually on the fact that no man would put up with Ania's headstrong ways or her wild spirit. She had been determined that Ania would learn to be demure and obedient, subservient to whatever needed to be done to advance the family's alliances, and not incidentally, enable her stepmother to achieve her own personal agenda. Ania had balked at changing one iota beyond what she had to in order to survive. She never told her father of the beatings, but when Miguel Valdéz was with them in Spain for a short time when she was almost sixteen, she convinced him that she would kill either herself or the bridegroom if she were ever forced to wed a man of her stepmother's choosing. Appalled, her father had ordered that his wife could not legally arrange a marriage for Ania without him, unless Ania herself requested the union. Since Miguel had to return to Florida, Ania knew that she had won on this issue. She paid a heavy price for that victory after Miguel sailed again for Florida.
One would have thought that nothing Leya had said would have bothered Ania, and very little did until now. She had vowed to only wed for love. Traumatized by some of the events she had gone through, that emotion seemed to be impossible for her, even after her return to West Florida. Surprisingly, since coming to California, that had all changed... She had truly fallen in love. Now she could not help but wonder if her stepmother was right. Could Diego not want her because she was not ladylike enough? Would he have loved her if she had been more dependent on him? It had not seemed important before. Things here in California were so different anyway. Why had he turned against her now?
She had tried to talk to him about this. Without ever using the word ‘love’, she had confronted him with her impression that she had meant more to him, that they might actually have a chance to become even closer in the future. She had insisted that her impression had been based on his actions toward her, not from her own imagination.
Diego had pretended that there was nothing to discuss, calling her friend and no more.
Confused and hurt, Ania had tried to demand that he be honest with her. Diego had walked out on her, not once but twice, before she had retreated to her room in agony. She searched her heart for answers to the questions haunting her mind. How could this have happened? Surely, there was some way to reach Diego’s heart. She had even thought of coming out and saying that she knew about who he was. But what is the point in that? she asked herself. Am I trying to force him to have some feeling for me that really is not there? No, that is too much like begging. Such things are beneath both of us. I will die before I begged any man to care for me! As she wept in her room, she remembered Luisa admonishing all of them to be strong. "Remember who you are," she would say. "The blood that runs in your veins is Valdéz blood, as fine a lineage and name as any in Spain. A Valdéz does not crawl. While they are concerned for others, they bow to no one. You carry yourselves with honor. Do not take offense without good cause, but when cause is given, avenge it swiftly. If one takes offense because of you, do not be slow to make amends. If the offended one will accept no amends, raise your head proudly and go about your business. It will be their loss, not yours!"
Raise your head proudly... Ania thought dismally. That is what I will do. I must not show weakness! So here she was, apparently carrying on life as usual. However, there was no longer any joy to it.
Ania looked down and noticed that Pepe was watching her with a puzzled expression on his face. "Pepe, did you say something?" she asked.
"Are you sick, patróna?" the young boy asked looking closely at her.
"Oh, no," Ania assured him. "I am fine. Why do you ask?"
"You do not seem fine, Señorita Ania. You look like my mother when she talks about my father and she is sick," Pepe said innocently. "Mamá says her heart is sick. Your heart is not sick, is it?"
"Such an idea!" Ania declared. "Your Mamá is missing your father. Now who would I miss? My heart is quite healthy, I assure you." She tried to smile as she usually would, but was not sure if she succeeded. She turned to the vines again.
Pepe merely looked at her and then dashed off. A few minutes later, he was back with a branch of early orange blossoms in his hand. "Here, Señorita Ania. These are for you. Mamá says it always makes her feel better when I bring her some of these. Maybe they will help you too."
Oh, muchacho, if only it were that easy, Ania thought. Never the less, she smiled down at the little boy. "That is very sweet of you, Pepe. Gracias! Why not take some to your Mamá now?" She tousled his hair affectionately. Pepe, grinning from ear to ear, ran off to do just that.
Ania sniffed the blossoms absently. She did feel a little better. Perhaps she should tell Brisa about her son's thoughtfulness. Maybe it would give her a lift as well. Ania turned and walked briskly back up the steps going up the terraced sides of the plateau and into the hacienda.
Saying that she felt a bit better of late, Brisa had asked Ania for any light work or craft she could do for her. Knowing that Brisa painted beautiful designs on pottery, Ania quickly put her to painting a border decorating the wall of the patio. The section she was painting was low enough for her to sit as she painted.
Ania was puzzled to find that Brisa was not on the patio. She walked on through the hacienda looking for her. Finally, she heard Brisa's voice coming from a room just off the kitchen. As she walked toward the door, Ania stopped in surprise, for Brisa was not alone. Ania heard a voice she recognized as Manolito Mería's. He is on forced work detail in San Juan Capistrano. What is he doing here? she wondered. Quickly pushing the door open, Ania entered the room and was startled as Manolito spun toward her in a slight crouch, a knife clutched in his hand. "You would kill me, Manolito?" she asked as calmly as she could manage.
Manolito relaxed enough to rise from the fighting stance, but still kept the knife handy. "I did not realize it was you, patróna! I cannot allow myself to be taken again."
"Was San Juan Capistano so terrible, Manolito, that you would kill to keep from going back there?" Ania asked quietly.
"Not perhaps San Juan, patróna, but that was not where we were being taken," the ragged man stated.
"But that is what you were sentenced to and what the capitán said," Ania said in a puzzled tone.
"Patróna, we were being taken to a mine in México. I got away and came back. I have heard of the mines, Señorita Ania. One does not live to return from them," Manolito looked at his wife. "I had to come back. I was needed here."
Ania quickly pushed the door shut. "Manolito, please, tell me everything you saw or heard about how this came about. Then we will see if we cannot come up with a plan to help you."
Seeing that she was not going to turn him in, Manolito put his knife down and began telling everything he could remember about the mines and a man named Vásquez.
Ania's mind raced as she tried to figure out what must be done. No doubt, if Rodríguez ever recaptured Manolito, he would be a dead man. Rodríguez could not afford for anyone to know about this deal with Vásquez. With the government wanting all the prisoners for their own work detail, it was a sure bet that this was not legitimate. It would be just another of the capitán's plots to make money. "You wait here," she finally told Manolito. "I will find you something to eat and then we will talk more. Only, please," she reminded them, "keep your voices down. You do not want others to hear you as I did." Ania left and made her way to the shelter that served as a cooking area, thinking furiously of what to do.
Diego sat on Paseo, looking down the valley at Ania's hacienda. Having given the horse its head as he rode with his mind on other things, he was vaguely surprised to find himself here. He should not have come, but really was not too surprised. It was, after all, where he truly wanted to be. He knew he should turn around and leave but...."Oh, the devil take it!" he finally exclaimed and urged Paseo on down the trail. He would play it by ear as to why he had come. He must hide his feelings, but just seeing Ania would surely ease his heart.
Ania walked calmly into the cooking shelter and ordered the women to load a bag with such supplies as they had that would keep several days. "I am sending one of the men to Santa Barbara to buy a bull," she lied. "He will need rations for several days. Please see that a couple of canteens are filled with good water for him as well."
As she walked back up to the patio with the loaded saddle bags, she heard what could only be Diego's voice asking a servant where she could be found. Pushing the gate open quickly and stepping through, her eyes immediately flew to his face. For just the merest instant when he first saw her, the old look was back in his eyes, a look of joy at the sight of her. Then, coolness took its place. Ania wondered if she had imagined the first look and prayed desperately that she had not. She composed her face as well as she could. "Diego," she finally got out, "I am glad you have come. I have a problem with which I need your help."
"Oh, does it pertain to the irrigation system that you wanted me to look over?" Diego asked. "That is what I have come to do. If the spring rains do not continue long enough, you will need that system."
"Well, that is one thing I want to discuss. Come. It will be easier to show you my problem than to tell you," Ania sounded unemotional. Her hands were clasped in front of her and her eyes gave nothing of her feelings away.
Diego hesitated for a moment, and then followed her inside.
Without another word, Ania led him to the small room, and after being sure no one was watching them, took him inside to hear Manolito's story. Ania watched Diego as the carpenter told of Rodríguez's plan. The expression in Diego's eyes seemed different somehow, more like the look in Zorro's eyes, now that she knew what to look for.
As Manolito finished his story, Ania drew Diego aside and said, "I am afraid that Rodríguez will kill Manolito if he catches him after this. I have food packed for him. I want to tell him to leave here, but I do not know where to send him."
"I have an idea," he said. Walking back to the other man and woman, he directed Manolito, "My father is now at the Rancho de Avilés, in Santa Barbara. Go to him. Tell him that I sent you. Speak to no one else of what you have seen for now. Until this passes, it would be safer to use another name. Father will know someone there who will hire you." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of money. "Take this to help you get established."
"I will help Brisa, and as soon as she is able, I will help her and the children join you there," Ania added. "Take the horse that is beside the back gate of the vineyard, as well."
Taking the money and the supplies, Manolito kissed Brisa and hugged her tightly. He then eased out the door and, avoiding the other people around, he quickly did as he was advised.
Shortly thereafter, Diego made excuses for having to leave so soon and without actually looking at the irrigation system. "I just remembered something that must be done immediately," he explained.
"I am not surprised," Ania said with a touch of bitterness. Then she bit her tongue. Zorro needed to be about his business. Surely that was the real reason for his leaving. Not even her feelings should get in the way. "I understand how that could happen." Diego looked away and did not meet her eyes.
Ania watched him ride away knowing that the one person in all California who might be able to stop this situation now knew about it. Whatever he did or did not feel for her, she could trust Zorro to do what needed doing. Sighing, Ania said a prayer for his safety and quietly walked back inside the hacienda.