Forge of Shadows

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

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 infested vines.

This was 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 killed it.

Ania immediately turned to one of the workers, who she suspected drank more than he worked. "Sancho, get me your jug of whiskey, quickly!"

"Me, patrona? I have no whiskey," the servant tried to object as he shook his head.

"Do not 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?"

The frightened 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!”

With 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!"

“Gracias, Tomás,” 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 shoulder.

Leaving the 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.

Bernardo's face 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.

By 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.

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By midnight, 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 mother.

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.

“Señorita Valdèz?” he asked.

“Sí?” Ania 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?”

"Señorita Valdéz," she heard the man say. "I believe that you have made a serious mistake."

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.

"You should have gone back to Florida when you had the chance, Little Pretty One," the first bandido growled. "It is a pity you will not have that chance now."

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 ran.

"If 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.

Shortly, she 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.

Ania allowed 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 stir.

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.

The man 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."

"Ah, and 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.

The man 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.

She realized 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.

Zorro looked 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.

Rising and 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.

"If you 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 think you were the target?" Ania asked, somewhat surprised. “Oh...I am sorry. I had not even thought of that possibility.”

"It would not be the first time," he replied simply. "Many find two thousand pesos quite desirable."

Ania was 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.

"Think no 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 survive."

"Would it 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.

"You would 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 behind her.

Ania was 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 hacienda.

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.

"Señorita, 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.

He was surprised as Ania merely said, "I will think on it."

He pulled 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 herself.

Uncertainty 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."

"It is more convenient for you to simply have me rescue you each time you get in trouble, yes?" Zorro asked incredulously.

Ania blushed, 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?"

Ania silently met his dark eyes. Raising her chin and straightening her back, she merely repeated, "I will think on it."

They rode 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.

"You have a very beautiful horse, señorita," he said as if merely making conversation.

"Thank you," Ania beamed with pride and relief at the change of subject. "It was my good fortune to find her, thus her name, Ventura."

"One is 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.

"There have been those who would agree with you, Señor Zorro," Ania admitted. "Don Diego compared her to your horse the first time I rode her."

"Her 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."

"Oh?" Zorro asked. "And did young de la Vega agree that she could not be beaten?"

"As a 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 able to"

Zorro was silent as Ania took the "bait".

"He said 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.

"Even though she has a shorter stride?" he asked.

"She may 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.

To Ania's irritation, Zorro threw back his head and laughed. "You are challenging me to a race, señorita?" he finally asked.

"Señor, 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 bristled.

"It is 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 horse race!"

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 finally said.

Ania blinked. "A wager? What kind of a wager?"

"Señorita, let us say that Ventura proves faster than Tornado. Then, well, if that happens, I shall let you set the prize won." he stated.

Ania narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Up to what stakes, Señor Zorro?"

"Whatever you set, señorita," he said.

"And just what do you win if Tornado proves the faster?" Ania asked, clearly wondering if her trust in his honor had been misplaced.

"Only what you could virtuously give." he replied, holding her gaze. "Your promise to discuss your situation with Don Alejandro and abide by his suggestion."

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 not?"

Zorro said nothing as he waited to see what Ania would do.

"Very 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."

Zorro smiled. "And what is that, señorita?"

"Señor 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.

Zorro reined 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.

Ania leaned 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."

"And, your bet, señorita?  You will abide by it?" he asked.

"Sí, Señor 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.

Zorro smiled back as he, too, patted his horse affectionately. "Come," he finally said. "It will soon be daybreak. It is time that you were home, señorita."

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.

"My 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 breath.

 

 

Chapter Nine
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