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epilogue

 

 

Forge of Shadows

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Diego and his father step in to help a beautiful young woman when someone threatens her family.   The first of the Forge trilogy stories. 

 

Chapter One

Ania Cristina Valdéz leaned on the rail of the ship, Buena Vista, listening to the almost musical creaking of the ropes and timbers that had been her home since her family had left their lands in Spanish West Florida to move to Alta California.  At times, the five months the journey had taken seemed endless. She laughed and turned her face into the cool breeze as she felt the excitement of watching the beautiful land slip by off the starboard bow grow almost uncontrollably in her heart. Always ready for change and excitement, Ania dreamily wondered about the future. Such a magnificent land must surely hold untold adventures, even for a woman.

The previous night, she and her twin brother, Juan, had stood on the deck watching the stars come out over the land that would soon be their new home. They had reminisced about making wishes on the first stars as they were growing up on their somewhat isolated plantation in West Florida.

"And what would you wish for now, little sister?" Juan teased after they had laughed over some of the childish wishes they remembered from the past. He chuckled as Ania rolled her eyes at the word 'little.' There being only five minutes between their births, the word hardly applied, but Juan knew he could get a reaction from Ania by using it.

"Are you not a bit old for wishes?" Ania tossed back.

Juan shrugged. "Just curious, I guess," he said with a grin.

Ania refused to let Juan's teasing cloud her good mood. "All right then. Let us see..." Ania looked back up at the stars. "First, I would wish for lots of excitement here, for lots of things to do with lots of people around. I have surely had enough of this ship. I am ready for a little adventure, or a lot, as the case may be."

Juan laughed, "And here I thought you were the one who said sailing away to a new land would be fun...I think you said."

Ania made a face. "It was not bad at first.  Just being on the ship and seeing the ports where we stopped was exciting, but later…well, it did get a bit boring.”  She looked at her brother with a mischievous glint in her eyes.  “At least, I did not spend the first month hiding below green as grass!" she teased. 

"Do not remind me," Juan moaned, with a mock shudder. “Come now. Do you not wish for something else?"

Ania looked silently at the twinkling stars overhead for a moment.  "Oh, not much,” she finally said, with a sigh, “ just to be able to make more of my own decisions. I am hardily tired of being told what is and is not proper!" 

"You have rarely let that stop you from doing what you wanted before," Juan laughed. "Papá spoils you and you know it!"

"Perhaps," Ania allowed. "But, surely, you would wish for something, too. Since you were determined that I make a wish as we used to, it is only fair that you make one, too."

"I do not know that I need to, Aniasita. It will not take much to keep me content."  Juan laughed around the cigar he was lighting. "I figure there will be plenty of men ready for a card game and there should be plenty of pretty señoritas. However, it would not hurt if they were rich, not with the hints Papá has been making lately as to my finding someone to settle down with."

"Ah, there you are, Aniasita. You are enjoying the sight of our new land, are you not?" Ania was startled from her reverie as her father came to stand beside her at the rail.

"Sí, Papá. It is beautiful." Shading her eyes from the bright mid-afternoon sun, Ania turned to smile up at Miguel Valdéz. "Is all of the land like that over there?"

"Well, no. Not far inland, just beyond those mountains, dry desert lands begin. They are beautiful in their own way, but strange and very different from what you are used to, my dear."

Ania thought of the humid, often swampy land surrounding their plantation. "Hmph! If that makes the weather less sticky and the roads more easily traveled, then deserts cannot be all bad. As long as there are open grasslands for horses and for riding, I am sure I shall be more than content."

Don Miguel laughed easily. His daughter's love of riding, astride yet, was well known, as was her skill. It had often earned her more than a little criticism from others in their far-flung and sparsely populated community. It was hardly a ladylike skill, but he refused her nothing when it gave her such joy. "You need not fear there, little tomboy. We will have as much land and as many horses as you could want."

"I do not know about that, Papasito. That could take quite a lot!" Ania smiled up at him, green eyes shining with merriment.

"Just remember the horses and stock will wait until we have the vineyard established," he reminded her. Then he looked toward the sunlit shore, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "Just wait until you see our valley, Ania. Not even that land over there can hold a candle to it. So fertile! And with an unusual abundance of water that keeps things lush and green when other areas have faded to yellow. It will produce the best grapes in all California, perhaps the best in all Norteamérica. I can hardly wait for you and Juan to see it."

"Sí, Papá, I look forward to seeing this little piece of heaven you have found. It is all you have talked about since you came here almost two years ago." Ania fondly shook her head at her father's enthusiasm.

Don Miguel had learned of grapes and winemaking as a child, trailing after a much-loved grandfather. Now that he had withdrawn from government service, he could think of no more pleasant way to wile away time than growing different varieties of grapes and blending their juices to develop fine wines. He admitted that horses and cattle would bring in more money. However, money was not the objective right now and he saw no reason not to see his dream come to life before he turned to the more mundane life of an hacendado. Once the vineyard and winery were established, he could treat it as a favorite hobby, even while he ran the rancho.

"Speaking of Juan, Papá, where is he? I have not seen him in the past three hours," Ania gazed back toward a small group of people who had now come on deck. The Buena Vista was not a large ship. It should be somewhat difficult to lose oneself on a ship this size.

Knowing her rogue of a brother as she did, she would just bet that one of two things had detained him. The first was a card game. He took to games of chance almost the same way her father did experimenting with his wines. It was a good thing he had a fair amount of luck and skill, or no amount of money would last him long. Fortunately, he won more often than he lost and was good-natured about it, whichever way it turned out. On the other hand, the second, and more likely, distraction could be a pretty señorita. He was not half as lucky in this area, nor was he half as sensible. He had fought more than one duel over affairs of the heart. Fate had again smiled on him here. Her father had seen to it that all his sons handled blades with a skill sufficient to preserve their own skins under such circumstances.

"Ah, I should have known!" she said at last as Juan appeared around the end of the deck escorting a delicate looking blond girl. They were deep in conversation, the señorita seemingly hanging on his every word. Ania saw Juan say something, and then bend quickly, placing a kiss on the señorita's hand. Her father laughed aloud as Ania rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Don Miguel watched his son as he left the now blushing woman's side and came toward them. He was proud of Juan--of both his children, really. Juan had grown into a fine young man--tall, dark-haired, with the emerald green eyes he and Ania had inherited from their mother. If only his two older sons had lived to come with him, he would have been quite content. Still, God had been good to him. Any man would be proud of these two.

Soon the tiny port of San Pedro, with its only recently constructed pier, came into view. From this point, they would travel inland a short way to the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Some distance outside of there, they would make their new home.  Don Miguel and Juan each tucked a large purse of gold into his jacket.  After making sure the rest of their considerable fortune was carefully hidden among the luggage, they went ashore. Their first stop in the pueblo was the office of the local comandante to register her father's land grant.

Comandante Rodríguez was a sharp-eyed man in his early thirties. He seemed a cold man, one who, curiously enough, did not seem overly pleased to welcome new landowners.

Ania left the men talking in the comandante's office and stepped out to view the pueblo that was to be her new home. There did not seem to be a great deal to be seen as she glanced around at several adobe buildings, mostly one story and a few two-story buildings.  There was a broad, dusty plaza with the reassuring sight of the pueblo’s church across the way.  A goodly number of small shops and vendors’ stands stood here and there. Most of the small shops were already closing for the night. Ania sighed. She would have enjoyed walking among the stands and looking at the wares available here. It had been a long time since she had enjoyed such an excursion. Ania’s eyes wandered over the nearby buildings for anything else which might let her know just what kind of a place this was. Finally, she spotted something which seemed to indicate that there was at least a little excitement in this area. On the wall beside her was a wanted poster. Ania peered curiously at the outlaw's picture. The drawing showed a man dressed in black with a hat and half mask.

"Reward: 2000 Pesos for the Capture of the Bandit Who Calls Himself Zorro", the poster proclaimed. Ania gave a low whistle. That was a great deal of money for anyone. She wondered what he had done to be worth so much.

"Perdóneme, sergeant," Ania said as a large man in the uniform of a sergeant of the King's Lancers walked by and smiled. She looked up at the broad man and returned his smile.

"Sí, señorita? How may I help you? " Sergeant García asked with a slight bow of his rotund body.

"Sergeant, just what has this man done? Two thousand pesos is a lot for one man. Is he a murderer?" Ania looked back at the drawing, wishing it was more detailed.

The fat soldier scratched his jowls as he answered, "Well, not exactly, señorita, although men have died fighting him. A rebel and troublemaker is more accurate. If something happens that he does not think is just or if he thinks the people are being mistreated, he is sure to stick his nose into the matter.  Many citizens have come to look on him as some sort of savior. Unfortunately, his views do not often agree with our comandante’s views.    Zorro has proved more than once to be a thorn in Capitán Rodríguez’s side."

Ania gazed at the picture thoughtfully. "That must make your job hard, sergeant. I mean, as you carry out your orders, you must frequently come into conflict with this rebel, as you call him."

"Sí, señorita. I have fought him many times." García puffed up his chest, as if to brag of his fighting ability. Then he slowly let his shoulders drop and shook his head. "Well, if truth be told, señorita, Zorro is not all bad. Why, he has saved even my life upon occasion. The people sometimes call him the "Dark Ángel of Los Angeles." Ania and García both gazed at the poster in silence for a moment. "Still, 2000 pesos is a lot of money...."

"I see that it is a good thing there is so much money offered for his capture. Otherwise, even more incompetent fools such as you would be protecting that devil!" a voice boomed from behind them. "Can you not find something better to do with your time, Sergeant García, than stand and sing the praises of a wanted scoundrel? Baboso! No wonder you have not caught him in all this time!"

García, gasping, spun around so quickly that he almost fell over, right into his outraged commanding officer.

"Get off me, you clumsy oaf!" Rodríguez sputtered.

"Sí, comandante! Sí, comandante! Right away." García saluted and hurried away.

Ania suddenly realized that she was staring open-mouthed at the raging officer. She shut her mouth as he met her astonished eyes. Painting a gracious smile on his face, Rodríguez made a show of calming himself. "I assure you, Señorita Valdéz, that soon we will bring this renegade to justice. He cannot laugh at the government and the law forever."

Ania said nothing as she met her father's gaze from behind Rodríguez. Don Miguel rolled his eyes as he patted his pocket behind the comandante's back. Ania understood. Her father had seen other officials such as this. Greedy, power-hungry men with little concern for the people under their care. Just the type of government official they had hoped to leave behind when they had left Florida. No wonder her father had become fed up and resigned. Men like this seemed to be everywhere in Spain's colonial government.

Don Miguel cleared his throat. "Comandante, would you mind directing us to an inn, por favor? We will need accommodations until our hacienda is built. We will be unable to go out to our land until early tomorrow morning."

"Oh, of course, Don Miguel.”  Capitán Rodríguez pointed across the plaza. "The cantina across the way rents rooms. I am sorry we have nothing more worthy. However, it should meet your needs."

"Gracias, Comandante Rodríguez. I am sure it will be most satisfactory," her father said. "We will be taking our leave now. Hasta luego, capitán."

Rodríguez nodded his farewell to the men and bowed over Ania's hand. Ania found herself relieved that he did not actually allow his lips to touch her skin. She felt a growing dislike for the man. Were she to judge by her intuition, this man was not to be trusted. It was a relief to be walking away from him across the plaza.

Don Miguel paid for three adjoining rooms on the balcony overlooking the cantina and arranged for their supper to be served in their rooms. As Ania ate, she listened longingly to the music coming from below. She loved music and dancing and longed to meet new people in a merry mood. It had been a long journey and even longer since the fiesta given in their honor before they left for California.

Ania quietly opened the door to her room and walked to the railing of the balcony. She could see the whole room from this vantage point. She leaned against the post and watched the musicians for a few moments. The lively music made her want to dance. Ania began to tap her toes as she looked out over the people seated below.  A longing built within her to join them.  “Ah, if Papá would only allow it, “ she though wistfully.

She allowed her gaze to wander over the now crowded room. Suddenly, her eyes met those of a dark haired young man seated at a side table. By the look of his fancy clothing, he was a man of some importance, perhaps the son of a wealthy merchant or landowner. Long legs stretched out underneath his table, he inclined his head and smiled at her. Ania smiled, then blushed and looked away. Her father would have said that she was being much too forward. Still, it would be nice to meet someone new...and he was quite good looking. Ania raised her head again and smiled at the handsome young stranger.

"Ready to make some romantic conquests for yourself, Aniasita?" Startled, Ania looked back to see her brother's teasing countenance. He cocked an eyebrow at her as he leaned his tall frame against the rail beside her, casually crossing his long arms across his chest.

"Nonsense," Ania stammered, somewhat flustered at having Juan find her so obviously flirting. "I am just listening to the music."

"Ah, yes, I see.  Simply listening to the music?” He cocked an eyebrow incredulously as he glanced over his shoulder at the table where the young man sat. “Planning on joining the festivities?" he asked innocently. Mischief sparkled in his dark green eyes as he looked back at his sister.

"Well, Papá would probably not like..." Ania began reluctantly, carefully bringing her eyes back to the musicians.

"Papá is not out here right now, is he?" he mentioned. His eyes dared her to do what he knew she wanted to.

Only rarely had Ania ever refused a dare from one of her brothers. She thought of the lively music and of the handsome caballero. "Well then, of course," she said with a proud lift of her chin. She and Juan turned to go down the stairs.

"One moment, Ania Cristina Valdéz! Where do you think you are going?" Don Miguel asked from the doorway of his room as he came out.

"Oh, Papá, I am just going to sit and listen to the music...and...ah...perhaps meet some of our new neighbors," Ania said innocently as she turned to him.

"Not in a cantina, you are not. It is hardly the place for a lady to spend her evening," Don Miguel said emphatically.

Ania met his eyes with a defiant glare. "I see no difference in Juan going down and my doing so. At least, I will not be gambling my money away!"

Juan gave her an amused look. "I hardly expect to be losing, Ania."

Ania spared him an irritated glance before she turned back to her father. "If it is against society's "rules" for a "lady" to do so simple a thing as enjoy music in a public room, then they can apply their rules to themselves and leave me out of it."

"You were born a lady and you will act like one, at least for now." Don Miguel frowned at her and sighed. "I am sure you will be shocking these good people with your bullheaded ways soon enough."

He held his daughter's defiant eyes with a level, steady gaze of his own. "Now, come, Ania." For a moment, father and daughter locked eyes, each as stubborn as the other. Finally, Ania sighed and dropped her gaze. "Come, Ania," he repeated as he extended his hand.

Defeated, Ania placed her hand on her father's and allowed herself to be led back into the room. She cast a wishful look back into the room below and then looked resentfully at Juan as he continued on down the stairs.

"Hey," he said with a sympathetic smile. "It is not I who has spoiled your evening for you. Frankly, this sleepy pueblo probably needs something else to talk about and you have never been afraid to do that." He shook his head and laughed softly as he watched the door close behind them.

 

 

 

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