Forge of Shadows
It soon became clear that Ania was sincere in her determination to be up and about, no matter how strong a suggestion the doctor had made to the contrary. After some discussion, both with her and between themselves, the de la Vegas extended to her the courtesy of "mi casa es su casa". With only the restriction that she always have Rosita near at hand when she ventured out, at least until her strength returned, she was to treat the hacienda as she would her own. However, Rosita was still under very strict instructions from Don Alejandro that, should Ania, at any time, become weak or overly tired, she was to see that Ania rested immediately.
Diego hinted that, if she did not cooperate with Rosita in this, he would, indeed, follow through on the statement he had made that first morning on the patio. Seeing the twinkle in his eyes as he said this did not detract a bit from the feeling Ania had that if she abused this privilege, he would truly have her carried back to her room, willingly or not.
Ania had always enjoyed being around people. While growing up, she had spent a good deal of time isolated on her father’s plantation, with few others of her class near by, especially during times when the bayous overflowed their banks and covered such roads as there were. She had quickly learned that even the lowest servant could be good company and worthy of respect as another human being. Sitting and watching the comings and goings of the house servants, as well as Don Alejandro and Diego, was a welcome distraction to her now. They often stopped to talk with her as they passed through on their various errands. The patio soon became a favorite spot for Ania as she sat and studied her father's journals.
This was made even more pleasant by the fact that Diego frequently sat with her. Ania found him easy to talk to and their conversations ranged across a wide variety of subjects. Even with all the distractions, there were, from time to time, those occasions when she did not particularly feel like talking, when her grief would come back on her to the point that she had trouble locking it away in the nice, neat room she had built in her heart and mind to keep it under control. It seemed that no matter how she thought she hid it, Diego always seemed to sense her pain within minutes of joining her. At those times, he would quietly get up and then come back with his guitar. Never pushing her to talk, he would play the guitar or sing for her, hoping only to comfort her. It never failed to raise her spirits as she listened to the music and his melodious voice.
Diego found her an interesting person to talk with as well. She seemed at the same time, both older than her age and yet with movements and expressions which made her appear younger than her twenty-one years. Although she had no more of a formal education than most women did, she seemed to have read widely and was curious about many subjects. Even while he had to conceal much from her, he found that she had a knack for getting him to talk about himself. Ania especially seemed to enjoy talking about things he had learned when he was in Spain. To his surprise, she was particularly fascinated with philosophy and science, two areas that few women were taught.
Entering the library one day, he found Ania directing Rosita in a search for books of interest. Rosita was just pushing a chair in front of one set of tall shelves in attempt to retrieve one Ania particularly wished to have. "May I help you with that, señoritas?" he offered. Easily reaching up and plucking the book the two women had been struggling to reach from the highest shelf, he glanced at the title. "A book on medicine, Ania? I would hardly have expected that to be something you would read to pass the time," he said in surprise as he handed it to her.
"I would guess you could say it is a hobby of mine, in a way," Ania admitted. "I would have dearly loved to have had the chance to study it."
"Medicine? Ania, women are not doctors," he reminded her.
"No," she sighed,"I suppose you are right, but I could surely have learned things that I could have used to help other people as the healer my niñera, Luisa, taught me."
"Oh, yes, I remember your saying something about that." Diego looked at her curiously. "In Florida, you seem to have viewed curanderas somewhat differently than here. Curanderas have a tendency to...well...." He stopped, realizing that what he had just thought might be a bit insulting.
"Be old toothless hags, tricksters, or perhaps dabblers in magic, as the superstitious sometimes believe?" Ania supplied, with a proud lift of her head. "Well, they are not all that. They are much needed on the plantations back home. Our doctors are few, and those that are there travel wide circuits. It could be weeks before they are back in a particular area. Here, you are lucky if you do not have to share your doctor with other pueblos.” She walked over to sit beside the desk and look up at him.
“As a matter of fact, we do share ours. Doctor Mendoza lives here, so he is here more often and for longer periods of time than in the other areas. However, there are frequently times when he is not available,” Diego replied. “I’m afraid that the curanderas I know are thought of much as you just said, almost as witches. People are as likely to go to them for fortunes and love potions as medicines. Many people are afraid of them, although I, myself, have found them to be far less fearsome.” He smiled for a moment, as if at a memory.
Ania laughed and shook her head. “Well, it will do no one any good to come to me for love potions and I leave seeing the future to God and the santos. The training I have is commonly such as is given to those who are mistresses of large plantations, or more often to one or two high ranking servants on each plantation. The curandera has to be ready and able to treat both high born and servant, in minor and major injuries or illnesses. Diego, there were more than one hundred souls on my father's lands before we left and I had to use what I learned many times, especially after Luisa died when I was eighteen. I think she trained me well, but I would so like to learn more. Perhaps I will not be needed so much here as I was back in West Florida, but if any of my people need help, I would like to be able to do what I can. Papá would expect nothing less from me. Now that I am in a different type of land, I especially need to learn about the plants and herbs. That is what we were looking for, a book on medicinal plants in this area."
Diego looked up at the wall of books beside them, quietly thinking for a moment before speaking again. "I do not believe we have anything like that here," he said as he looked back at Ania thoughtfully, "but I will watch for some on herbology when the book shipments arrive in the pueblo from time to time." He was finding Ania to be a surprisingly complex young woman.
True to his word, he located other books for her over the coming weeks, including a rather large volume of "Hierbas y Plantas Medicinales del Mundo Nuevo". He was amused to often see one servant or another bringing samples of various plants to her as well. Between reading and studying these books or her father's journals, and her talks with , time seemed to pass somewhat more quickly for Ania.
Ania’s new freedom did indeed seem to do her good. Although she was still obviously far from well, she seemed to grow stronger every day. When Dr. Mendoza returned, he was surprised at the improvement in her health. "Though I have heard," he said, with a sharp glance at her, "that you have not been following my instructions, it does not seem to have harmed you."
"Then I can be out and about now?" Ania asked hopefully. "There is much I have to do."
"Well, you should not do a great deal yet," Dr. Mendoza instructed. "However, I do not see that trips into the pueblo for Mass or for shopping, or carriage rides will harm you now, but no horseback riding yet. The last thing you need right now is another fall." He gave her a hard look. "Is that clear?"
"Sí, Doctor. I will remember." She would have preferred to ride, but, frankly, the idea of no longer being house bound was too pleasing for her to be choosy.
"As you are so much improved and I do have other patients at some distance from here, it will probably be some time until I return. Perhaps when I do, we can see about removing the splint on that arm," he said, smiling at the joy the señorita showed at his decision. “Just be sure you remember what I said. No riding!” he stressed sternly as he left.
“Yes, Dr. Mendoza,” Ania promised meekly, overjoyed with the prospect of finally getting on with her life and her plans.
Ania was all smiles when Diego saw her later. "Buenos dias, Diego!" she said brightly.
Her excitement and joy was contagious and he found himself grinning back at her. "Ah, I hear that the good doctor is allowing the caged bird to stretch her wings a bit now, is he not?" he commented.
"Oh, sí, Diego," Ania laughed in pleasure at the thought. "I was just on my way to ask you or your father for the loan of a carriage and team, por favor. I hope you can spare someone to drive me." She indicated her arm with a rueful smile. "I might still have a bit of difficulty handling the reins."
"Why, Ania Cristina, that will not be necessary. I happen to be free now and it would be a pleasure if you would allow me to drive you wherever it is you wish to go," he insisted.
"Thank you, my friend. I would like that," Ania blushed slightly as she smiled up at him. She had been hoping he would offer. “I need to go to my land. Too much time has passed since I came here. If I am to do anything, I must start on it soon. Just to see it will mean a great deal to me. Father had such hopes for it.”
As a knock interrupted their conversation, Diego gestured for Bernardo to open the door.
"Please see that Señorita Valdéz gets this. Gracias," a young lancer requested as the door was opened. He quickly handed the message to the mozo, and without another word, turned and remounting, rode back in the direction of Los Angeles.
Bernardo stood for a moment, a somewhat uncertain look on his face. When Ania walked up, gazing out of the door after the soldier, he smiled and handed a folded paper with an official looking seal to her.
“Well, that was strange!” Ania said. After a moment, she shrugged, then gazed curiously at the letter as she opened it. "It is from the comandante," she said, puzzled. “Why would he be writing me?” She read silently for a moment, her expression changing to one of anger and outrage as she did.
“Ania, are you all right?” Diego asked quickly. “What is this all about? What is in the letter?”
“That vile snake!” she cried. “Listen to this,” she said as she looked up at Diego and then back at the letter. "Señorita Valdéz," she read. "It is with pleasure that I recently heard of the improvement in your health. However, I would suppose this means that your stay in our humble pueblo will soon be coming to an end and you will be returning to family elsewhere. After considering this and the fact that your father is no longer able to fulfill the stipulations of the land grant, I have found it necessary to withdraw the registration of the land grant that was discussed upon your arrival. The money used to secure the registration will, of course, be returned to you. Wishing you a speedy recovery and a safe journey, I shall remain...Your faithful servant, Francisco Tristán Rodríguez, Comandante and Capitán, Presidio, Reina de Los Ángeles."
"He cannot do that!" Ania cried. "I have every right to keep that grant! I must speak to him at once. Ooohh, I did not think it pleased him when Papá registered his grant in the capitán’s office that day and now I know he was against it. Well, I am not letting him take this land away from me!"
"Ania, calm down," Diego soothed as he watched the agitated woman pace the length of the room and back, her eyes flashing with anger. "It is probably merely a misunderstanding on the capitán's part. More than likely, it will be easily corrected."
“It had better be, or I will...” As she let the sentence hang in the air, Ania had a sobering thought. Well, just what am I going to do? Even if I were well, I do not have the skills to challenge the capitán or to force him to do what I say. She closed her mouth and had to fight to keep frustrated, and if she were to admit it, frightened tears from forcing their way down her cheeks. I will not cry! she told herself firmly. She would not let herself be that weak.
“Come, Ania. I will go with you and we will see if we cannot straighten out this whole problem,” Diego said calmly. Ania found it oddly comforting to feel him gently take her arm to guide her toward the door.
On the way out, they met Don Alejandro and quickly informed him of the situation. After reading the letter himself, he assured her, "We will support you in whatever you wish to do, Ania Cristina. Are you still convinced that you will be able to manage the land yourself?"
"I am more determined than ever, Don Alejandro," she stated firmly.
"Good! Then Diego and I will go with you to
see that you get that chance," the older de la Vega said. Turning to
a nearby servant, he ordered, "Bring a carriage and team around for
Diego and the señorita. Also, tell Marco not to unsaddle my horse, but to
bring him back around front. Have him bring Bernardo’s horse as well.
Now,” he said, looking back at Ania, “let us go see why our comandante
felt that this grant should not be honored.”