Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

As happy as Ania was, she had other things on her mind when Diego found her at the table in the patio. Open in front of her was a sketchpad at which she was busily working.

Diego stood and watched as she put the finishing touches to a sketch of Zorro on Tornado. Her intensity on the task seemed to say that it was more than just a way to pass her time. "What are you doing?" he asked after a moment.

"I am thinking with my hands, Diego," was her reply.

"Oh, and how does one think with their hands?" he inquired, with an amused smile.

"I had a tutor in Spain with whom I actually enjoyed working. I learned a great deal about art from him,” Ania answered. “He always said that what the mind forgets, the hands remember."

"Oh?" Diego prompted.

Ania stopped and explained. "Ever since the other day something has been bothering me, Diego." Without waiting for his comment, she went on. "Zorro seems so familiar to me, as if I know him and, yet it just will not come to mind. I thought that if I drew him as I saw him, it would all fall into place." Here she paused and added a few more strokes to the drawing. Diego watched her closely, but said nothing as she blended several lines to add more contrast to one part of the masked face.

Ania secretly watched Diego's reaction as she drew. Out of the corner of her eye, Ania noticed that Diego was standing perfectly still, while watching her intently. Nonchalantly he crossed his arms in front of his chest and rocked up on his toes just slightly.

"Well, what are your hands remembering?" he teased.

Ania sighed. "Not much, I'm afraid. Just as I think something is coming to the top of my memory, it slips away again."

"And what would you do with the information if you had it, Ania? Do you need 2000 pesos so badly?" he asked.

"Of course not, Diego! How could you think that?" She frowned at him angrily. "After all, I owe him my life thrice over. I would just like to know who this man is.  I owe him so much! Perhaps there will be some way that I can thank him someday."

 “Maybe he does not need to hear you say it for him to know how you feel, Ania. I have a feeling that just knowing that you are safe is thanks enough for him,” Diego said thoughtfully.

Ania stood very still and was careful not to look at him. She was afraid too much would show in her eyes for that. She hoped so much that he would add more. To her disappointment, Diego said nothing else. "I hope so, Diego,” she said. “Oh, well," she added after they had been silently looking down at the picture for a moment, "maybe it is just that he reminds me of someone I once knew. Perhaps that is all."

"That is more than likely the case," Diego agreed.

Ania added another line. As she did so, her hand brushed a charcoal stick lying beside the pad. With a quick movement, Diego reached out and caught the stick as it rolled off the table's edge.  As he laid it back beside the drawing pad, he opened his mouth to speak but whatever he was going to say was cut short as he heard Don Alejandro call for him outside the gate. With a smile and a bow, he left her still sketching.

"Diego, my friend, you just told me more than you know," she said under her breath as she watched him walk away. In spite of his controlled reaction, she had learned what she wanted to know, and quite accidentally at that. For, as Diego had caught the charcoal stick, the ornate cuff which covered his wrist had pulled back exposing the underside of his wrist. There Ania had clearly seen three parallel scratch marks, just the kind of marks that would have been made by her fingernails as she had struggled to get a grip on Zorro's hands the other day.

Ania smiled as she slid another picture out from under the one she had been working on. This picture was one of Diego upon Paseo. She had very carefully drawn him in the same position that she had drawn Zorro in the other picture. She nodded as she compared the two pictures. Gently, so as not to smudge the charcoal, she lay two fingers across the upper part of Diego's face in the picture at just the point covered by Zorro's mask. "This is going to be very interesting," she commented to herself, "very interesting, indeed."

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As she waited for the wine to mature, Ania began to find that success did have at least one drawback. It left her with entirely too much spare time.

She tried to busy herself with the new vines. However, they were well established and growing. Also, as with the other duties related to the vineyard and winery, she had chosen well as to overseers. Tomás kept everything running just as it should. There was truly little that needed her personal involvement.

The herds were doing well. Many of the gravid mares and cows, which she had purchased, had now begun dropping their young. Probably no other detail of her new life promised to give her so much pleasure as riding out and watching the foals frisk about after the herds. Yet here too, there was little to keep her mind occupied on a day-to-day basis.

Ania found herself growing restless and moody. Worse still, she found that the grief she had thought she had put behind her came back with a vengeance with the lessening of work. Ania began to fear that she was losing her mind. Memories and images of not only Papá and Juan, but also of her brothers, Eduardo and Felipe, who had been lost at different times since she had turned seventeen, haunted her dreams. She turned to sketching the images to try to put them to rest, to get them out of her head.  She found that it did not help a great deal.

Diego could only watch in concern as Ania grew more unhappy and distant. He thought he knew what was in her mind and would have comforted her, had she allowed it. He had tried to talk to her to find out what was troubling her, but she had only withdrawn further. It seemed that, just as he had decided on the first day when he had driven her to the mesa, he must wait until she was willing to accept comfort from those around her. She must open that door. It could not be forced.

"Ah, Ventura," Ania spoke quietly late one afternoon, "I should not have taken my trouble out on you, my friend." Ania leaned into the brush strokes as she brushed the sweaty, lathered horse in her stall. "I should have paid more attention to you, should I not?" As she had so often in her past, Ania had turned to long, fast horseback rides to try to cope with the turmoil within her. This time, the tried and true remedy seemed to have no effect. Today, her feelings were such that she had ridden Ventura at top speed harder and longer than she had even on the night of the fire, stopping only when she realized in guilty dismay how truly weary the horse had become. She had almost wished that Bastián, who had been moved to other duties by now, was still with her. At least, then his insistence on less speed would have prevented her from abusing her horse. She had stopped and dismounted, walking the horse slowly around until the mare had stopped heaving for breath. Then she had ridden her home at a walk, stopping frequently to allow Ventura to rest.

She had refused to allow any of the servants to tend the horse when they finally reached the stables. For good or bad, this problem was her own responsibility. Ania carefully offered Ventura only small amounts of water as she groomed her. When all the sweat had been brushed out of her shining coat, Ania threw a blanket over the mare and slowly walked her again. Only when the Ventura was at ease in her stall and seemed to have taken no lasting harm from her mistress' thoughtlessness did Ania return to the house to dress for supper.

When Ania arrived somewhat late to the supper table, she tried to smile and act as everyone expected of her. However, bright conversation was beyond her at the moment. She sat and pushed the food around on her plate as she listened to Diego and Don Alejandro discuss one thing or another of happenings around the pueblo. Only when addressed directly did she comment, in a somewhat distracted manner.

After some time of this, she realized that Don Alejandro had stopped speaking and was quietly watching her. She recognized, with a start, that he had been addressing her, but she had not a clue as to what he had said. "I am sorry, Don Alejandro. My mind seems to be wandering. What was that again?" she finally managed to stammer.

Instead of restating his comment, Don Alejandro continued considering her. "What is troubling you, Ania?" he finally inquired, sympathy and kindness shining in his dark eyes. "Is there not some way that you would have us help you?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to declare that there was no problem, that she was fine, but for some reason the words would not come.

As she glanced across the table at Diego, she saw he was watching her with an expression that she was very much afraid was pity. This was the last straw. She looked down, struggling to hold back tears, and, finally, managing to get out a whispered "Con permiso,” she rose and hurried from the house.

The two men watched her leave with dismay. With a quick glance at his father, Diego rose and followed Ania. He found her clinging to the tree on the patio, trying desperately to stop the flood of emotion that wanted to break free.

"Ania," he said quietly, "it is all right. You are not alone in this. Let me help you."

Ania struggled for a moment longer wanting to deny the weakness she perceived in herself. However, this time the emotions would not be turned back. "Diego, I fear I must be losing my mind," she finally whispered.

"I doubt that very sincerely," he reassured her. "Tell me what is so troubling to you."

Haltingly, she began to tell him of her dreams and of the grief and guilt she felt. When the words faded into sobs, he pulled her into his arms and held her while the tears which had been denied almost from the moment she had first awakened in the bedchambers upstairs simply flowed. "I must be going crazy, Diego," she managed to stammer between sobs. "Why else would I be so torn now? It has been almost a year since we came here and all this began. Why can I not put this behind me and be happy?" Ania leaned against him, the rough braid of his clothes oddly comforting under her fingers and cheek.

Diego asked no questions, simply allowing her to babble as she would of what she was feeling. He tightened his arms around her and laying his cheek against the top of her head, whispered words of comfort to her.

Finally, she stood back a bit and began to get herself under control. "I am sorry, Diego. I have so tried not to be weak, especially in front of you. I always hoped that you would think me a strong person," she admitted. "Now I am afraid you see how weak I really am."

Ania looked down as Diego gently dried her tears with his handkerchief. Running his finger along her cheek, he lifted her chin until he could once again meet her eyes. "You believe I would think you weak?" he finally asked. "How could I think you weak when I have just watched you accomplish something many men would have found daunting?" As she remained silent, he continued, "Surely, you can not see honest grief as weakness. Nor is it surprising that it is so hard to deny now. Did you think you could run from your grief forever, Aniasita?"

Ania looked up in surprise, "Run? I was not running from grief. How could I?"

"Were you not? For ten months, you have thrown yourself into the founding of that vineyard and winery as if all of creation depended upon it. Every time things have almost become overwhelming or when your emotions became hard to face you have looked around for something else to attack, anything, as long as it could turn you away from what you were feeling," he insisted. Quietly, he continued, "So many times I have watched you do this. So often I wanted to reach out to you like this, to talk as we are now, but you would not allow it. You built a wall so high and so thick around yourself that no one could reach you, no matter how much they loved you."

Ania looked up at him in uncertainty as she wondered if she dared read what she hoped into that last statement.

Misreading her uncertainty, he continued, "Do you still feel that this delayed grief shows weakness, Ania?" He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Do you feel up to a walk?" he asked suddenly. He smiled at her slight nod. "Then let us talk as we walk."

As they went through the gate, her hand in his, they walked in silence for a few moments. Then he began to tell her of the young boy he had been when, at the age of fifteen, he had lost his mother. That her illness had been a lengthy one only added to the pain that both he and his father felt. Unsure of how to cope with both his own grief and his son's, Don Alejandro had, for a while, withdrawn emotionally from his son. Diego, for his own part, had outwardly coped but, even as he did so, he looked around for something, anything that would keep him physically busy and away from a hacienda that suddenly felt very empty and cold.

His mother's death had happened just as the vaqueros had begun the biggest roundup of the year. Diego began riding with the vaqueros every day, riding out with them early in the morning and not returning with them until forced to by nightfall.

Things had continued like this for some while, as Diego continued to find activities that gave him little time to brood. Finally, a rainy spell had come that had all but halted many of these activities. Diego told of how he had found himself pacing restlessly from one room to the other. It was during this time that Don Alejandro, after watching his son's unhappy restlessness, realized how isolated they had both become. Until the lack of activity had allowed their grief to resurface, each had remained locked in themselves, unable to help one another in a situation they should have faced together. Finally, Don Alejandro had had his son sit with him before the fireplace. Love shining in his eyes, Don Alejandro had looked up at his wife's portrait over the mantle and begun talking with his son of the good things they would always remember. Soon the walls that they had built around themselves came down. Yes, there were tears as they talked but, also, they were able to rediscover the love that connected them and find that they were not alone in their pain. This had happened only after circumstances had forced them to slow down and stop running from the pain and face it together.

Ania and Diego were both silent for a few minutes. Having walked some distance from the house, they were now leaning against a couple of small boulders near the base of a tree. Diego finally looked back at her, "Everyone runs from grief, Ania. Some of us just manage to run longer than others."

Ania sat quietly looking at the twilight beginning to fall around them. She felt oddly at peace now, as if the storm of emotion just passed had taken most of the pain with it. She no longer felt as if she was walled away from those around her. She wondered about her feelings for the young caballero sitting near her.

As the night darkened, they began to talk about lighter things, of growing up and of the hopes and dreams they had had of what life would bring. Ania laughed with him as she admitted to some of the tomboyish pranks she had pulled as a young girl, even to having stolen her cousin's clothes to masquerade as a boy in order to ride in a horse race. She ruefully admitted that that trick might have cost her a great deal as she felt that it had inadvertently led to her father's remarriage. Other members of her family had insisted that he must have someone to "take the girl in hand". She had never before admitted the guilt she felt for the unhappy turn of events her life had taken from that point on. Yet, somehow it felt safe to open up to Diego, as if there truly was a connection growing between them.

She walked over to the tree trunk and looked up at the early evening stars. She smiled slightly. "You know, Diego, the night before we arrived in San Pedro harbor, I stood on the deck of the ship and made wishes on stars I saw shining over this new land. You know what I wished for?" she asked as she looked at him.

"No, what did you wish for, Ania Cristina Valdéz?" he responded with a smile. He, too, walked over to the tree and looked up at the stars.

"I wished for adventure, Diego. I did not want the quiet life of a lady, but excitement and adventure," she looked back up as the stars with a serious expression on her face. "It seems to be as that old expression says: Be careful for what you wish, lest you get it."

Diego was silent a moment. Then he spoke, a surprisingly serious note in his voice. "Yes," he agreed, "you should always be careful what adventures you open your life to. You must be sure that they are worth their price."

Ania looked up at his handsome face as he remained silently gazing for a second at the stars. She thought of what she felt she knew of the man and his dangerous, crazy, wonderful plan to help the people of California. She wondered if it was her adventures he was referring to, or to one of his own. She thought then that this might be why, regardless of what she was beginning to think he felt for her, he had not felt free to speak of or act on it openly. Earlier, this thought would have worried her and made her distrustful of his intentions. Now, oddly enough, she felt a feeling of trust grow within her as she looked up at him. It felt as though, whatever happened between them in the future, she could always trust him to protect her from whatever hurt he could, be it physical as he had as Zorro or, even more important, emotional as Diego had shown her in many ways since she had quite literally fallen into his life. Along with the trust, she felt another emotion that she now acknowledged could only be love growing as well. It must have shone very clearly in her eyes, for when he looked down at her, there was answering emotion in his hazel eyes.

Slowly, he leaned down and softly, at first, then more firmly, kissed her. When their lips parted he stood for a while looking as if he would say something.

Behind them, from the hacienda, came the sounds of servants coming out the gate on errands of some sort. Diego looked back toward them and stepped away from Ania.  She smiled in amusement as a thought occurred to her. A year ago, she herself would have thumbed her nose at society's rules and, while still quite naive, would hardly have paid attention to what many servants thought. Now, here was this man, who was taking such care to assure that no one thought evil of her, when she would hardly have thought to worry about it. She grinned more broadly. How could one not trust a man who so clearly looked out for her in such a way?

Sighing, Diego looked down at her and shook his head. "Perhaps it would be best if we returned now." He smiled as she reached out and put her small hand in his.

"Sí, I’m afraid that is so," she admitted with a laugh.

Together, they walked back to the hacienda with its bright lamps already being lit. To Ania, the future seemed to outshine even the twinkling lamplight.

 

Epilogue
Chapter One
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