Forge of Shadows
Over the next
few weeks, Diego saw considerably less of the beautiful young houseguest.
The comandante had been up to his usual tricks and Zorro had done his best
to interfere with the capitán’s plans as often as possible. He was
forced to balance his late nights with equally late sleep in the mornings
and, more often than not, Ania was gone when he arose. On more than one
occasion, he had also ridden by late afternoon, fearful that if he did
not, some innocent would suffer by his failure to be where he was needed.
Often, the only
thing that reminded him of her presence was the sound of her quick
footsteps as she left her room, grabbed a bite of breakfast and rushed to
the stable to work with the mare, which she had named Ventura.
True to her
word, Ania was determined to train the spirited mare herself. Early
morning and late evening, she spent in the smaller corral training
Ventura, building trust between horse and rider, without dampening her
spirit. Most of the rest of the day, Ania spent striding through the
reclaimed vineyard as workers fought the old growth back into a semblance
of order needed to be able to tend the vines. From the mesa to the far end
of the valley where the irrigation system was being readied, Ania was
constantly on the move. Whatever distrust the workers had originally had
of their young employer faded quickly as they came to know what to expect
of her. Fair and clear in her demands on them, Ania was also surprisingly
willing to get her own hands dirty with whatever task needed doing. She
found that even her skills as a curandera was appreciated during the rough
and often dangerous work of unraveling the tangled, sometimes snake
especially so on one evening. While several women had been hired to cook
and provide food for the workers for two meals during the workday, Ania
paid their children to carry water to the workers whenever they needed it.
Ania had stopped beside one worker struggling with a particularly stubborn
vine. As both she and the worker, Tomás,
pulled the vine free, trimmed it to encourage new growth, and wrapped it
around a new lattice, a little girl walked up with a bucket of water and a
gourd cup, which she accidentally dropped near the base of the vine. Just
as the child reached for the gourd, a sharp rattle was heard. Everyone
froze. From almost at their feet, a coiled rattler struck, sinking its
fangs into the girl's arm. Without thinking, Ania reached out and grabbed
the snake behind the head, jerking it from the child's arm and tossing it
to the ground several feet away where Tomás
immediately turned to one of the workers, who she suspected drank more
than he worked. "Sancho,
get me your jug of whiskey, quickly!"
patrona? I have no whiskey," the servant tried to object as he shook
deny it, Sancho! I can even smell it on you from here. Hurry, hombre!
Would you have the child suffer through your cowardice?" Ania glanced
sternly at him and he finally turned and hurried away, to return a moment
later with a corked bottle.
Without a word,
Ania turned to Tomás, who was by now holding the child, and demanded his
knife. She then washed the blade quickly with the whiskey and, admonishing
Tomás to hold the child firmly, did the same to the arm around the bite.
Her face and
voice softened as she looked at the child. "I am sorry, Little One.
You must be brave now so that I can help you. Try to hold just as still as
you can. Do you understand? Can you do that for me?"
child nodded. Ania gently stroked the little girl’s cheek and smiled,
hoping to ease the little one’s fear. “Bueno!
What a brave one you are!”
a nod to Tomás, she quickly make cross cuts over each fang mark, and
bending down to the child's arm, sucked as much of the venom from the
already swelling arm as she could. Afterwards, she washed her mouth out
with the foul tasting whiskey, shuddering at the fiery taste before she
spit it out. "Go and get her mamá,"
she ordered a boy standing nearby. The wide-eyed boy hesitated only long
enough to stammer out, "Sí, Patrona!"
Ania said as she took the now sobbing child from his arms and began
walking with her to a shed set up near the edge of the creek. "Come,
little ángel, let us go down to the water and cool you off. It will make
you feel better. Your mamá will soon be here. The rest of you, get back
to work, por favor...but be careful. Where there is one snake, there will
be more. Tomás, see that the work is continued," she said over her
mother bathing the ill child's face with cool water from the creek, Ania
walked a bit away from the others to a small clearing that was out of
sight. It was here that Bernardo, on an errand for Don Diego, found her
some time later, trembling with reaction to everything that had happened.
Only after things were under control had Ania even thought about what she
had done. Helping the child had been the only thought she had had when she
had grabbed the snake. The remembered coldness of the reptile made her
feel sick with revulsion. She fervently hoped she would never have to do
such a thing again...indeed, she was not sure she could do it again.
"Please, God, just let it be enough," she prayed aloud, worried
that the child may still have absorbed enough of the snake’s venom for
it to prove deadly.
showed his concern over her distress. "Are you hurt?" he
inquired by gesture.
Ania shook her
head and, made an effort to stop her own trembling. In
a moment, she succeeded, pressing her still shaking hands to her skirt so
as to appear calmer. "Bernardo," she said, speaking slowly in
hopes he could read her lips enough to understand. "I need you to go
to my quarters and bring something here." Ania tried adding gestures
that she hoped made sense to the deaf-mute. "In a trunk, you will
find some...." she stopped as he gave her a puzzled look. "By
the saints, if you could only hear!" Then she took him by the arm as
an idea occurred to her. Leading him to a clear spot, she squatted down
and began to write in the dust. Under a drawing of a trunk, she wrote,
"Look in. Find packet marked 'Snake Root'. Contents will look
like this." She sketched narrow, vaguely heart shaped leaves.
"Will have strong, aromatic scent. Bring here quickly." She was
greatly relieved when Bernardo indicated that he understood. Ania watched
as he rode back southward. She turned then and rejoined the mother and
child, no one other than Bernardo even aware that she was not the totally
calm healer she appeared to be.
the time Bernardo returned with the medicine, Ania was relieved to have
seen signs that perhaps she had acted quickly enough to save the child's
life. She sent a message back with him that she would be staying at the
child's house for a short time to watch her. Tying
Ventura to the rear of one of the wagons she had recently
purchased for use on the rancho, Ania herself then took the child and her
mother back to their casa.
when the child slipped into an easy sleep, Ania felt certain enough of the
child's fate to leave her in the care of her mother. As the child slept,
Ania walked to the door of the simple casa and considered her options. She
was tired physically, but she knew that she was too tense to sleep at the
moment. The moonlight seemed to beckon her. The young patrona gazed
quietly at the landscape for a moment longer. It is so beautiful and
peaceful here, she thought. She smiled to herself as she decided what
she would do. Sí, a ride in the moonlight is just what I need! It will
take me little more than an hour or so to get home. Surely by the time I
reach the hacienda, I will be more than ready to sleep. That decided,
she returned to the mother’s side and explained the use of the herbs she
was leaving. After giving her a large enough packet of Snake Root herb for
a couple of days more treatment, Ania took her leave of the grateful
The moon shone
brightly as Ania made her way back toward the de la Vega lands. Had she
not been so tired, she would have considered it a perfect night to ride.
Keeping half an eye on Ventura’s reaction to be sure no predators were
near, she allowed the mare to travel at an easy canter as she thought
ahead to work needing to be done tomorrow. Slowing Ventura to a trot, she
entered a narrow path that was a short cut home. Suddenly she was startled
by the appearance of a man on horseback in the path ahead of her.
Valdèz?” he asked.
replied, all the while cueing Ventura to back up so as to keep distance
between herself and the strange man. She was beginning to regret taking
the short cut. The narrow path had her much too hemmed in for her comfort.
She could feel her heart beginning to pound in fear, but had no intention
of showing her alarm. “Who are you and what do you want?”
she heard the man say. "I believe that you have made a serious
As Ania quickly
tried to turn Ventura, she was dismayed to found another mounted man
behind her. She kicked Ventura's flank and attempted to ride past the
first man, only to have him reach out and grab the reins.
should have gone back to Florida when you had the chance, Little Pretty
first bandido growled. "It is a pity you will not have that chance
Ania knew she
had to stay calm to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity to
escape. Swallowing her fear, she watched the men closely, waiting for her
chance. As one of them reached to grab her, she suddenly brought the ends
of the reins hard across his face. The man flinched back, but to Ania’s
disappointment, did not release the reins. She would have to do something
different. Quickly, Ania slipped out of the saddle on the other side and
only I were armed!" Ania thought desperately. She knew that her
chances were slim, but she would not give up without trying something. Her
father and brothers had seen that she learned at least some self-defense,
but even the tricks she had learned were no good against a mounted
assailant. Even now, she could hear the pounding of horses' hoofs behind
her. Quickly, she flung herself up a path between the scattered boulders
too narrow for a horse to follow. That would bring down the odds at least
a little bit.
heard the heavy sound of the man's boots on the path behind her. Glancing
over her shoulder, Ania saw that the man had no weapon in his hands yet.
If he was attacking barehanded, there was one thing she could try. She
deliberately slowed her pace, just enough for the man to get within reach.
As she felt his hand grab her arm and yank her backward, Ania planted her
left foot and used her momentum and the force with which he pulled her
back to bring her right knee up into his groin. She was rewarded with an
anguished groan from her pursuer as he collapsed to the ground and lost
all further interest in the chase.
herself a small smile, but knew that she was not out of danger yet. There
was still another assailant to worry about. Even as she turned to scramble
on up the path, she could hear him closing the distance between them. Even
more alarming was the fact that as she glanced back at him, she could make
out the glint of metal in his hand. She knew she wouldn't get the chance
to play the same trick twice. As soon as the path opened up on top of the
ridge, Ania tried to zigzag to lessen the opportunity for the man to throw
the knife. Her fear making her breath come in gasps
and her heartbeat almost audible, Ania knew without a doubt that only a
miracle could save her. She could hear the man gaining on her now that
they both were on level ground. She began to despair, as she again
heard the sound of horses' hoofs pounding in her direction. With a cry of
hopelessness, she looked back. The sight that greeted her this time,
however, seemed a true miracle.
Ania was not
sure which saint to thank for directing him to her rescue, but once again
Zorro had been in the right place to help her. She turned to watch as he
leaped from the back of the beautiful black stallion she had heard so much
about. The two men went down, tumbling on the dusty ground. Zorro finally
managed to come up on top, one hand tightly gripping her assailant's knife
hand. He slammed the bandit's hand against the rocky
ground until the knife fall from nerveless fingers. Once the man was
disarmed, Zorro stood and, jerking him to his feet, sent the man reeling
backwards with a mighty punch from his right hand. The bandido did not get
back up. Zorro stood over him for a moment, and then turned to Ania.
"Are you all right, Señorita Valdéz?"
he asked in a deep, pleasant voice.
Ania blinked in
surprise. His voice sounded vaguely familiar to her. But, then, she
supposed that it would. He must have spoken a great deal to her when
he had found her laying hurt the first time he had come to her aid. At
first, she could only nod. Finally, having caught her breath sufficiently
to allow speech, she said, "I had hoped to meet you some day so that
I could thank you for saving my life as you did when my family was
attacked. Now it seems that I owe you thanks for two times. I am eternally
in your debt, señor."
El Zorro made a
slight bow. "I was only too glad to help, señorita." He would
have spoken further but for the fact that his captive groaned and began to
Ania felt hot
anger rise in her as the bandido regained consciousness. Being attacked
twice, as she had, was too big a coincidence. She was sure this man knew
who and why her father and brother were killed. All fear forgotten, Ania
stepped to Zorro's side as he yanked her attacker to his feet.
"Please, Señor Zorro, make him tell who sent him and why my family
was attacked. I am sure he knows!"
The man's eyes
grew large with fear as he stared up into the black-masked face. "I
do not know anything!" he swore.
With an easy
motion, Zorro tossed him back against a nearby boulder and, with a
movement almost too quick to follow, drew his sword, placing its tip
against the man's chest. "Perhaps it would be best if you tried again
to remember, señor," he stated in a deadly quiet voice. The eyes
behind the mask were as cold and hard as the Toledo steel in his hand.
swallowed hard and appeared to consider the idea. Finally, after a couple
of attempts at speech, he started to talk. "I do not know anything
about any earlier attacks. I was only hired for this one."
who was the one who hired you?" Zorro allowed the blade tip to move
in a small circle in front of the man. The bandit seemed almost hypnotized
by the blade's movement.
swallowed again and started to speak, but even as he did so, a shot rang
out flinging him backwards where he lay still on the ground.
Even before the
sound registered in her mind for what it was, Ania found herself thrown to
the ground. Zorro had acted quickly, bringing her down behind him as he
himself dove for the cover of the ground.
that his body now screened her from anyone shooting from below. She looked
up at him in wonder. His eyes were turned toward the moonlit valley below
them, searching for some sign of the gunman. Suddenly, the sound of a
horse being hurriedly ridden cut through the still night air.
toward Tornado. Had they been on level ground with the fleeing horseman,
he would have attempted and possibly succeeding in catching him. However,
from where they now knelt, he would have had to take Tornado quite a
distance around to get back on that level. It would take too much time and
the man would have been out of reach. Zorro looked back at the young woman
quietly watching him. The best thing he could do now was to see that Ania
returned home safely.
dusting himself off, Zorro looked down at the bandido's body. "I am
sorry, señorita, it seems that this man will tell us nothing. Perhaps he
could have told us very little as it was. It could be that the first
attack and this one were not linked after all. "He turned to look
down at her. "Just two bandidos who wished to take advantage of an
unescorted señorita in the wrong place at the wrong time." He
offered his hand and helped Ania to her feet.
had heard their words to me, you would believe that no more than I, Señor
Zorro," Ania scowled at him. "They called me by name and told me
I should have gone back to Florida. Why should they have known such
details about me, and why would that other demon have shot this one, if
not to keep him from telling what he knows?"
“A young señorita,
left alone by a tragedy almost as soon as she arrived in such a small
pueblo as this. How hard would it be for people in the area to
remember her and her story?” Zorro shrugged. "Besides, señorita,
perhaps the target was other than the one he hit."
you were the target?" Ania asked, somewhat surprised. “Oh...I am
sorry. I had not even thought of that possibility.”
not be the first time," he replied simply. "Many find two
thousand pesos quite desirable."
speechless for a moment. It occurred to her that she had been rather short
sighted in not recognizing that hers had not the only life in danger. Her
shame at her selfishness must have shown in the way she looked at him for
Zorro shrugged again and tried to make light of the situation.
more of it, Señorita Valdéz. I seem to keep my patron saint very busy indeed,
yet his protection still seems sufficient." He gave a short laugh.
"It is you who seems to need a full time guardian angel. It is unwise
for anyone to be traveling alone at this time of night. Ours is not the
most civilized of regions."
"Sí, so I
have been told before," Ania admitted. "Yet one will do what one
must when mercy is needed. A child was injured working for me and it was
my responsibility to see that she took no lasting harm from her injury. I
stayed with her and did what I could until I saw that she would
not have been better to have stayed until daybreak, señorita?" the
outlaw suggested. He looked toward his horse and whistled. The horse
obediently trotted to his master.
"I am not
accustomed to thinking of myself as endangered, Señor Zorro. I was not
tired and the moonlight looked inviting. It seemed a pleasant enough
night," was Ania's reply. She felt a need to justify her actions to
this outlaw. Even though she was grateful to him for his help, the feeling
rankled her pride. She raised her head proudly.
do well to remember that what is and what seems to be are often two very
different things, Señorita Valdéz. I can not always arrange to just
happen to be nearby whenever you need rescuing,” Zorro warned solemnly.
His eyes glistened behind the black mask. Then he smiled at her. “Come.
Get up on Tornado. I will be able to see you safely home at least this
night." Ania smiled back. She had to admit, outlaw or not, it was a
far more pleasant thing to receive a smile from El Zorro than a frown.
After helping her mount, he swung gracefully onto his stallion's back
relieved to see Ventura quietly eating grass beside the path as they came
down from the ridge. Soon, she was riding her own horse beside the outlaw
as they followed the moonlit path back in the direction of the de la Vega
For a few
minutes they rode in silence as Zorro mulled over some of the things Ania
had told him. Things could very well be as he had said, a coincidence with
no real connection to the attack that had killed her father and brother.
There most certainly had been enough talk of the mysterious tragedy that
most, if not all, the people in the area should know about it. However,
relatively few people knew her by sight yet. He was no longer so sure that
the bandidos’ words to her meant nothing. Perhaps they were both
assigning too much significance to it, but until more was known, erring on
the side of caution was to be preferred.
it may well be that, if, as you think, the attacks are in someway
connected, you may still be in danger in the future. I would suggest that
you not travel alone. Perhaps it would be best that you hire a bodyguard
or, at the least, have an armed servant with you. I am sure that Don
Alejandro de la Vega would be more than willing to help you arrange for
this," Zorro suggested.
surprised as Ania merely said, "I will think on it."
Tornado to a stop and turned to face her. "Surely you can see that
you can use the protection, Señorita Valdéz!" This was no time for
the stubborn independence on which the young woman seemed to pride
flickered only briefly over Ania’s face. Then she shrugged and
replied, "Perhaps what you say is true, but I do not relish the idea
of having a nursemaid shadow my every step, Señor Zorro."
more convenient for you to simply have me rescue you each time you get in
trouble, yes?" Zorro asked incredulously.
not sure exactly how to reply. "I am most thankful for your help, but
perhaps next time, if there is a next time, I will not be so unprepared.
In West Florida, while I was growing up, there was often unrest, sometimes
even open revolt. It was hardly, as you say, the most civilized of
regions, either. My father saw to it that we were taught to defend
ourselves if the need arose. I will no longer be taken so unaware of the
danger. And, as for involving Don Alejandro any further in this, I
think not. I have already been too much of a worry to him and to Don
Diego, as well. I will not burden them further."
Zorro stared at
her in silence for a moment. Then he said quietly, "Señorita, would
the burden be less for them to plan your funeral?"
met his dark eyes. Raising her chin and straightening her back, she merely
repeated, "I will think on it."
without speaking for a while. Zorro tried to think of a way to convince
the foolish girl to speak to his father about the extra protection he was
sure she needed. He knew that Ania was quite capable of keeping all this
to herself. He had already seen times when she had had some problem on her
land and rather than coming to either him or his father for help, she had
thought things through, made her own decisions about how to handle things,
right or wrong, and only later, mentioned having dealt with it. Until now,
he had even admired her spirit and determination, but this time a mistake
on her part could be deadly. His father would be able to get her to see
reason. However, she must be the one to bring it up. There seemed no other
way for either his father or himself, as Diego, to know of it otherwise,
without the very fact of their knowing suggesting a connection with Zorro.
Then he smiled as an idea began to take shape.
a very beautiful horse, señorita," he said as if merely making
you," Ania beamed with pride and relief at the change of subject.
"It was my good fortune to find her, thus her name, Ventura."
lucky, indeed, to find a horse such as she seems to be. But for her white
markings, she reminds me of Tornado." He looked at Ventura closely as
if appraising her merits.
have been those who would agree with you, Señor Zorro," Ania
admitted. "Don Diego compared her to your horse the first time I rode
conformation is much like Tornado and she does seem to have spirit,"
he said pleasantly. "But, she does lack a hand or so of his height.
It is a pity she is not longer of limb."
Ania frowned at
the perceived criticism of her horse. "It is true that she is not as
large as Tornado, but I assure you she has plenty of length in her stride.
She covers the ground well when she wishes. Diego commented on her speed
when I said that I doubted she could be beaten."
Zorro asked. "And did young de la Vega agree that she could not be
matter of fact, he did say there was one other horse that might be able to
beat her," Ania met his eyes with a level gaze. "Only might be
silent as Ania took the "bait".
that your steed might be able to beat her, Señor Zorro. However, I
am not sure I agree with him. I believe she just might be faster than
Tornado," Ania said proudly.
though she has a shorter stride?" he asked.
be slightly shorter, but, if I am the one on her back, she will be
carrying less weight. That could make all the difference right
there," Ania stated.
irritation, Zorro threw back his head and laughed. "You are
challenging me to a race, señorita?" he finally asked.
is it the fact that a woman would challenge you or the fact that I think
my horse could be faster than yours that you find so funny?" she
your audacity that amuses me, Señorita Valdéz," the outlaw laughed.
"You are nearly killed and must be rescued by me. Then you see a man
shot dead before your eyes, and still you sit there challenging me to a
Ania frowned at
him, "Señor Zorro, do you or do you not accept the possibility that
Ventura could outrun Tornado over, say, a quarter mile of road?"
Zorro smiled at
her silently for a moment. "Very well. Let us make it interesting
then. Let us make a wager on the outcome of this great race," he
"A wager? What kind of a wager?"
let us say that Ventura proves faster than Tornado. Then, well, if that
happens, I shall let you set the prize won." he stated.
her eyes suspiciously. "Up to what stakes, Señor Zorro?"
you set, señorita," he said.
what do you win if Tornado proves the faster?" Ania asked, clearly
wondering if her trust in his honor had been misplaced.
you could virtuously give." he replied, holding her gaze. "Your
promise to discuss your situation with Don Alejandro and abide by his
Ania sat stock
still for a minute, staring at him. Then she began to laugh. "Ah, I
see you think you have "outfoxed" me, El Zorro! You think you
have manipulated me into just what you wanted me to do all along, do you
nothing as he waited to see what Ania would do.
well," she said at last. "I agree to your terms. However, it is
only fair that you know what the stakes that I set will be."
"And what is that, señorita?"
Zorro, if Ventura reaches the finish first, then you shall remove your
mask. It is your identity that I would have as my prize. Do we still have
a bet, amigo mio?"
Ania cocked a dark eyebrow at the man in black.
Zorro sat for a
long moment as though weighing the risks. For though he would gain only
the satisfaction of knowing that Ania would be safer if he won, he himself
might be a great deal less safe if the race ended differently than he
thought it would, for he would honor any bet he made. Only Bernardo had he
willingly involved in the dangerous game he had played for over two years.
Still his instincts told him that she could be trusted. "Sí, señorita,
we do," he finally said.
Not far ahead,
their path rejoined the Camino Real at a point where the road was fairly
straight and smooth for some distance. Stopping at the beginning of the
straight area, Zorro pointed out a rock formation just to the left of the
road about a quarter of a mile ahead. The rock gleamed faintly in the
moonlight as the two riders lined their horses up side by side and Ania
began to count aloud. On three, the two horses leapt away at the urging of
their riders. Dust billowed from beneath the horses’ feet like
earthbound clouds to drift off into the night.
At first, the
smaller, more lightly loaded Ventura pulled ahead, mane and tail streaming
back past the small woman on her back. Hoofs thundering as they reached
the halfway point, the larger stallion slowly began to gain on the mare.
Finally, the two horses were pounding down the road side-by-side. As the
finish approached, both riders urged their steeds to give just a little
more. Ever so slowly, the gleaming black stallion pulled away...first by a
nose...then by a neck...and finally, as the rock formation flashed by, he
led by more than a length. Tornado had indeed proved the faster.
Tornado to a halt and turned to see what Ania's reaction would be. To his
relief, he saw that she was laughing. From the glowing, excited look she
gave him as she pulled up beside him, he could see that she was more
exhilarated by the race itself, than she was disappointed in its outcome.
down to pat Ventura's neck fondly. "Good girl, Ventura! You gave it
your all, did you not? Yes, good girl." She turned to Zorro with a
bright smile, "I stand corrected, Señor Zorro. Tornado is,
indeed, the fastest horse in or anywhere around Los Ángeles."
bet, señorita? You will abide by it?" he asked.
Zorro, have I not given my word on it?" Ania replied, somewhat
irritated by the question. Yet, she did truly understand why he had been
willing to make the risky bet that he had, and she realized that he merely
wanted to be assured that she would follow through on something that could
be of life and death importance to her in the long run. One could hardly
blame him for that. She smiled again at him.
back as he, too, patted his horse affectionately. "Come," he
finally said. "It will soon be daybreak. It is time that you were
The sky was
only faintly streaked with gold as they arrived at the hacienda. Zorro
summoned a servant to the door with resounding knocks. Soon Don Alejandro
himself was summoned to the gate, surprise showing on his face to see the
outlaw and Ania sitting before his gate at this time of morning.
apologies for calling you from your bed so early, Don Alejandro, but our
young friend here need to speak with you about an adventure she has had
this night." Then turning to Ania, he touched his hat and gave a
slight bow. "Señorita Valdéz, it has been a most interesting night.
I hope that we shall meet again, only under less exciting
circumstances." Then, turning the stallion, he rode a short distance
from the gate. Pausing for a moment on top of a slight rise, the stallion
reared and pawed the air. The outlaw again touched his hat and then horse
and rider disappeared into the growing dawn.
Only as she let
out her breath in a sigh, did Ania realize that she had been holding her