Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Ania glared at Scarface, hatred filling her eyes like flame. "You have no idea how often I have dreamed of your ugly face, devil. How good it would feel to send you back to burn with your Master!" Never taking her eyes from his face, Ania tightened her grip on the sword and stepped on the flat rock to lunge once more.

As her weight came to rest fully on the rock, Scarface suddenly brought his foot up under the edge of the rock, tipping it backwards. Ania cried out as her feet flew out from under her and she felt herself falling backwards. In desperation, she flung her weight back toward the wall of the canyon and away from the open air of the inner edge. Sword flying from her hand as she fought to avoid a deadly fall, her head hit the stony canyon wall.  Even though it was merely a glancing blow, it was sufficient to bring a series of bright flashes of light and pain, followed closely by a threatening curtain of black to her sight. Struggling to keep from blacking out, Ania fell heavily on the stone path. Black spots danced before her eyes as she saw Scarface coming toward her with his knife raised. As if in slow motion, she struggled to move, to bring her hands up to ward off the blade.  Nothing happened. Her hands and feet refused to move to her defense quickly enough. It was like trying to move deep underwater, under a wave that got deeper and darker each moment.

As she momentarily lost her battle to remain conscious, a black whip suddenly wrapped itself around Scarface's knife, just as it had once before around his gun. With an angry cry, Scarface turned to see Zorro, still on his knees where he had climbed to the path's edge behind him. Grabbing a rock the size of a melon, Scarface threw it at Zorro with all his strength. Though the rock did not knock the masked man from the ledge, it did cause him to lose his grip on his whip as it struck the back of his knuckles. Knowing that that would not stop Zorro for long, Scarface turned and hurried up the path toward the canyon rim. 

With a hurried look at Ania, Zorro edged past her to continue pursuing Scarface. The two had almost reached the last stretch of path before reaching the canyon's rim, when Zorro lunged to grasp the fleeing Scarface. At the instant his fingers found a grip on the bandido's shoulder, fate took an alarming turn. Under the combined weight of the two men, the ledge on which they struggled suddenly gave way, sending both tumbling toward the canyon floor nearly sixty feet below. Scarface gave an anguished scream as he plunged downward, hands grasping empty air. Zorro did not waste precious time and strength with a yell. Rather, he twisted around in mid-air and made a grab for the remaining path edge. His hand found only a precarious grip, his riding gloves slipping on the unstable rock. He began to press his toes into the wall of the canyon trying to find a secure enough foothold to allow him to work his hands into a tighter grip. For a second, he found himself hanging by one hand as the edge crumbled under his left hand. He found just enough of a toehold to grip once more with both hands before his toe began to slide. He knew he would be in serious trouble if he could not get stabilized enough to begin to pull himself up soon. Already the muscles in his arms and shoulders were burning with the strain of supporting almost all of his weight.

He had begun to fear that he might be destined to follow Scarface to the rocks below, when he suddenly felt someone reach down and try to grasp his wrist. Looking up, he could see that Ania was lying at the very edge of the remaining ledge trying to help. "Señorita, get back...ledge may crumble further," he managed to gasp out.

Ania ignored his warning. Reaching back with her leg, Ania slid her foot into a crack in the wall. Making sure she could hold her position with her foot, she slid out even further. With eyes closed, she reached down and tried to get a grip on his wrist beyond the riding gloves. At first, she felt her fingernails rake uselessly across his skin. Then, gradually she was able to get a better grip. She found that she could not pull him up from the position she was in, but she was able to give him the stability he needed to finally get a toehold and begin working his way back onto the ledge. As he managed to pull himself up, she did not release her grip until they had both pulled themselves a safe distance back from the crumbling edge. Then both lay back against the wall gasping for air.

"Thank you, señorita. It now seems that I am in your debt," Zorro finally said.

Ania startled a shaky chuckle from him as she smiled ruefully and said, "You hardly need to thank me, amigo mio, as my stupidity seems to have landed us both where we are. Besides, I could hardly afford to lose my guardian angel, as you seem to be."

"If that is the case, perhaps next time, señorita, it would be better if you would allow me to rescue you on more level ground. Your penchant for trying to escape by climbing up something seems to cause trouble for both of us."

Ania laughed as she caught her breath, "Señor Zorro, all I can say is that it seemed to be the right thing to do at the time."

Rising to his feet, Zorro reached down and helped Ania up. With one hand carefully tracing the wall, Ania led the way back down the path toward where Tornado waited. Only when she made a false step about twenty feet from the bottom of the path and would have fallen had he not caught her, did Zorro realize that Ania was walking with her eyes open as little as possible.

As he looked down at her in concern, she said rather weakly, "I seem to have struck my head a bit harder than I thought." She put her hand up to her head and almost stumbled again. Zorro quickly grasped her arms and guided her the few feet further to a point where the path widened. There he picked her up and carried her the rest of the way down. For a few moments, Ania leaned her head against the satin of his cape and relaxed, enjoying the feeling of safety that came from being in his arms.

As he lay her down beside Tornado, he thought about his next course of action. Her winery was closer to where they were, but watching her as she struggled to sit up and was forced to close her eyes again, he felt that she needed care that she could get more quickly if he took her directly back to the de la Vega hacienda.

"I am all right, Señor Zorro," she tried to reassure him. "My eyes just do not seem to be working well together.  I am seeing double right now and it is making me feel a little sick. I am sure it will pass in a few minutes. I think will feel better if I can just keep my eyes closed for now."

Zorro looked at her worriedly for a moment, "Señorita, do you suppose that with a bit of help you could ride in front of me on Tornado? I think it would be wise if I took you directly back home and not to your winery. That way a doctor can be summoned to help you."

"That will not be necessary. I am sure I’m better already," Ania tried to object. Pridefully, she made the mistake of trying to get up. Her body reacted to this rash act by having what little remaining in her stomach to come up, much to her embarrassment. "I am sorry. I am sorry," she repeated, as she leaned on shaking arms trying to recover her dignity.

"For what?" Zorro asked quietly as he pushed her hair back from her face with a surprising gentleness. "For striking your head or for being sick, señorita? Neither is exactly something you can control."

Ania started to shake her head as she realized the futility of apologizing for something outside of her control. She quickly realized her mistake and carefully held her head still. "I will go wherever you feel I should, señor. I think I can ride, as long as I keep my eyes shut."

"Good," he said simply as he lifted her up onto Tornado’s back and climbed up behind her.

Ania found that things seemed very strange to her as she rode homeward. Many of the sensations, if one overlooked her lightheadedness, were pleasant. She was aware of the soft rustle of Zorro's cape as he moved and of the almost sensuous feel of the silk covering the strong arm under her fingertips as it encircled her waist supporting her as they rode. She was aware of the pleasant closeness and strength in the man behind her and the power of the horse's muscles as he responded to his master's subtle signals. As things seemed to get just a bit further away, she tried to concentrate on Zorro's voice as he talked to her. Without her being aware of it, even these sensations faded.

Alarmed, Zorro reined Tornado to a halt as Ania suddenly went limp in his arms. Pulling her back more securely against him, he looked around. Nearby, he saw where a small spring flowed down the canyon wall to join the larger stream. Guiding the horse to the edge of the small spring, he dismounted and lay Ania down gently. Quickly he took his bandanna and wet it in the cool water. As he lay the cool cloth against the side of her face, he called her by name, once even by her given name.

Slowly, Ania became aware of something cool and damp against her face and of a voice calling her. Confused, she tried to answer him, wondering why Diego was calling her with such worry in his voice. She opened her eyes and realized that she had not spoken and that the face looking down in concern was the face of Zorro, not of Diego as she had thought. "Strange," she mumbled, "I must have been dreaming." Ania's head began to clear a little as Zorro once again dampened the bandanna with cold spring water and gently wiped her face.

“Welcome back, señorita. I am glad to see that you are back with me,” the masked man said, relief filling his voice. Ania smiled weakly at him. Then Zorro frightened her. "Señorita, it seems that I need to go get help for you.” he informed her. “I will leave you here and someone will come to help you soon." He was surprised as Ania reached out and grasped his arm in panic.

"No, please, Señor Zorro! Do not leave me here alone," she begged, rarely seen terror reflecting in her eyes.

As he looked at her, Zorro realized just how much fear Ania had been trying to hide from him. Her eyes pleaded with him. Fearing that the terror might do her harm if she were left alone feeling as she did now, he made his decision. He would not have her feeling that he had deserted her. "Very well, señorita."

Dampening the cloth once more, he put her back on the horse and, holding her tightly, once again turned southward.

"Señorita," he said after a while, "I would prefer to hear you talk as we ride, if you can manage it. I wish to see that you are not about to faint on me again." Without looking, Ania could hear the concern in his voice.

"Sí, señor, I think I can manage that," she agreed. For the rest of the ride, they talked of various things, none of great importance. Later Ania could remember little of what they said. What she most remembered was the sound of his voice as he talked to her.  His low, pleasant voice seemed to bring a measure of calm to her emotions deep inside, an assurance of safety and peace unexpected after the events of the day.

Finally, as the sun was setting, they once again surprised the de la Vega servants as he again had Don Alejandro de la Vega summoned. "See that she is well taken care of," he said as he helped Ania down into Don Alejandro's concerned arms. Then turning Tornado he disappeared over the rise as he had the last time.

Inside, Don Alejandro helped her to a sofa and then turned to send a servant for the doctor.

"Wait, Don Alejandro, I really do not think you need to do that. I believe that I am much better than I was when Zorro first started to bring me home. I think a night of rest is all I need," Ania objected. "My biggest problem was double vision and the nausea that it caused. My vision is better now. The worst is over I assure you."

As proof, Ania forced herself to a sitting position and determinedly managed to at least appear to have her eyes focus. Shakily at first, and then with a firmer voice, she told him of the fright she had had in the canyon and of Zorro's fight.

A few minutes into her story, Diego came hurriedly in from the door leading to the stair. "Ania, I heard you were injured! What happened?" he asked as he looked at her with worry in his eyes. After a moment, he continued, "I am glad to see that you are being well taken care of. Have you sent for Dr. Mendoza, Father?" He glanced at his father and then back at Ania.

Ania felt a shock go through her at his words. Not so much at what was said but at the very sound of the phrase "well taken care of". Though her mind told her she had not, her senses told her that not long before, her ears had heard that same phrase said the same way and in the same voice. Without thinking, she turned quickly toward him, too quickly. Immediately, her vision doubled and the room spun. She put her hand to her head and grasped for support from a nearby chair. Diego and Don Alejandro both leaped to her aid and lowered her back onto the cushions. Ania covered her face with her hands to hide her confusion. She could only assume that she had struck her head much harder than she had imagined to think what had occurred to her just then. "Perhaps I spoke too soon about the doctor, Don Alejandro. I must have taken quite a blow when I fell."

"I thought as much," the older man said. Turning quickly to Bernardo, who had entered the room at about the same time as Diego, he indicated that he was to go for Dr. Mendoza. "Let us get you to your room, Ania," he said as he turned back to her. "Anything else you have to tell us can wait until later."

He started to call for someone to carry her up the stairs, but Ania refused. "I can make it myself," she insisted. She tried to stand to do just that, but as she did, she felt the room tilt at an alarming angle. Immediately, she felt Diego's arms catch her and sweep her up. Quickly, he carried her out the door and up the stairs with all the strength that Zorro had shown when he had carried her to Tornado when she came down from the cliff path. Pretending more faintness than she felt, Ania closed her eyes and laying her head on his shoulder, tried to make sense of the ridiculous things her mind insisted were possible.

Later, after Dr. Mendoza had gone, Ania pretended to sleep as she thought about other things that had puzzled her. First, she tried to think of the three times that she had seen Zorro. Had Diego been close by during any of those times? While she did not truly know about the first time, the other two times she had only seen Diego some while later after Zorro was gone.  No proof one way or another there.

There was somewhat of a resemblance. Both were tall and dark. Until today, in the daylight, she would have sworn that Zorro's eyes were darker than Diego's. But now, she realized that both had the same hazel color to their eyes and, oddly, only now she remembered vaguely looking up into black framed hazel eyes when she lay hurt.

Before today, too, she would have said that Zorro was taller and thinner than Diego. But, she remembered that as she had leaned against him as he helped her up onto Tornado's back, the top of her head had come just above his chin, as it did on Diego. And it was possible that the black of his clothing only made him look lighter than Diego. In truth, they were probably of a size.

Ania turned over restlessly. What nonsense am I thinking? Gentle Diego, Zorro? How could that be? He does not even wear a sword as far as I have ever seen.  Ania moaned at her confusion.

Ania jumped as a voice spoke from a chair near her bed. "Señorita Ania, is there anything I can get for you?" Rosita asked.

Ania had forgotten the servant had been told to stay with her. She would have to be careful not to speak aloud of the things she was trying to figure out. The servant would think that she was crazy. Maybe I am, Ania thought. Aloud she said, "Gracias no, Rosita. You try to get some sleep. I will be fine."

Rosita settled back into the chair, and though Ania did not think the young woman would sleep, was quiet. Ania tried to still her mind so that maybe she herself could sleep, but the possibilities would not go away.  Thoughts continued to chase each other around her brain.

Ania thought of his voice and, for some reason, the sound of his laughter came to mind. When she had challenged Zorro to the race, he had laughed a full, deep throated laugh that, had she not been irritated at the idea of him laughing at her, would have tempted her to laugh too. She also remembered sitting in the sala with Diego just after she had placed the thorns under the comandante's saddle. When Don Alejandro brought news of the capitán's wild ride, they had both laughed. Oddly, for all Diego showed a lively wit, Ania could think of few times that she had ever heard him roar with laughter. This time had been one. From what she could remember, the laughter on both occasions had much the same sound.

She thought of all the times she had had Rosita repeat what she had heard of Zorro each time he appeared around the pueblo. She wondered if this could not explain the odd hours Diego seemed to keep. Would not a man who rode throughout the area during nights have to sleep late in the mornings or risk being too dulled by lack of sleep to save his own skin, much less someone else's? She also remembered Rosita telling of a cousin of hers in the pueblo who was prevented from being arrested the very night of the fiesta here. That had happened somewhat earlier than other escapades of which she had been told. Ania's heart skipped a beat as she realized that at the time it was possibly happening, Diego had been missing from the party and, for the same amount of time it had taken she would bet.

She would definitely keep her eyes open for a while but Ania felt that she was right. There were, however, a couple of other things she could try. They could wait until tomorrow, when she had had some rest. Her mind finally settled enough to permit it, Ania drifted into a dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

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