Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker






Chapter 27

When Zorro rode back into the cave as the sun was beginning to lighten the eastern sky, he was aware of two things. One was that, with the excitement of battle gradually fading behind him, he was tired and his shoulder ached. In the urgency of stopping de Irujo and then the tension of waiting to see if he would have to battle his way out of the circle of Capitán Cosio's men, he had had no time to pay attention to it. Now he was very aware that he had landed on the very shoulder that had been injured before. He flexed it and then pushed the discomfort out of his mind, for the second thing was far more important.

 It was that here, in the safety of the cave, Ania was waiting for him. His heart fairly sang within him with the knowledge that his prayer had been answered and the coming dawn did not bring an end to their dreams, but a new beginning. He paused for a moment and looked back at the dawn, smiling. Capitán Cosío and Sergeant García, and through them, Judge Vasca, now had all the information necessary to reverse the ruling on Ania and make her a free woman again. Surely her land would be returned as well. They had merely to wait until everything had been made clear to all the powers that be. He laughed quietly for a moment. There were definitely a few things he would like to have made clear to him as well. He was looking forward to hearing how that rascal, Pepe, had come to be in that tree. However it was, it had been lucky for him. Still smiling broadly, he urged Tornado on through the overhanging vines.

In spite of the exhaustion clearly visible in Bernardo's face, the faithful friend looked up and smiled delightedly as Zorro rode in. Throwing his hands up in a questioning gesture, he asked what happened.

Zorro smiled again as he dismounted and handed the reins to Bernardo. "Everything has happened just as I hoped. Tomás and his family are safe and de Irujo and the others are in Capitán Cosio's capable hands. He and Sergeant García were planning on taking them in and having Judge Vasca come to question them as soon as possible." He looked back up at his friend as he removed his riding gloves. "It is only a matter of time until Judge Vasca reverses his decision and Ania is truly free."

Bernardo's smile spread from ear to ear. He gestured the number three and held up his ring finger.

"Sí! It is to be hoped that the wedding can go on as planned, only three more days." Diego looked toward the second chamber and sobered a bit as he removed his hat, mask, and cape. "How is Ania? Is she sleeping?"

Bernardo frowned and rocked his hand in the air. To tell the truth, he was concerned about her. Until a few minutes before, he had been in the chamber watching over her, as she struggled, not only to go to go to sleep, but to stay asleep peacefully. She kept dozing and jerking herself awake as she dreamed of recent events.

Diego walked quietly into the chamber and stood looking down at Ania, asleep, at least for now. His heart filled with thankfulness as he once again realized just how close he had come to losing her, in spite of everything. Thinking about the night’s events as he returned to the cave, Diego had decided that since the capitán thought he knew who Zorro was, he had also decided to use shooting Ania as an emotional attack on him once the duel had begun to go badly. Had she died then, Rodríguez might have been right. Diego felt that it would have been quite possible that he would have lost the emotional control that was so important to Zorro's survival. What a complicated series of occurrences it took for both of us to come out of this alive and unhurt! Perhaps we did have more than a little heavenly intervention, he thought, recalling the prayers he had uttered so fervently before leaving the cave.

Even as he stood watching her while she slept, she frowned and mumbled something. He noticed that a long lock of her hair was wrapped around her neck. It looked uncomfortable. Diego knelt beside her and gently tried to ease the strand loose. However, as the hair slid against her neck, Ania's eyes flew open and her hand flew to her neck. Sitting bolt upright, she gave a frightened cry.

"It is all right, Ania," Diego said soothingly as he reached for her, sitting beside her on the blanket and pulling her into his arms. "Sh-h-h-h! It is all right now. You are safe."

After a moment, Ania realized that she was in the safety of Diego's arms. Calling his name, she clung to him as if she was afraid he would vanish if she released him. "I was so afraid they would kill you, that I would be the cause of your death. Oh, Diego, just hold me! If that had happened..." she cried.

Diego gently rocked her, whispering comfort. "Sh-h-h-h! But it didn't happen, nor would it have been your fault if it had. The main thing is that it has all turned out all right. It is all over, Ania, or just about," he said softly. "De Irujo and the others who were helping Rodríguez are in Capitán Cosio's custody. They cannot hurt you, or me, again!"

"Wh...what of Rodríguez?" she whispered.

"There is no way that demon can hurt you ever again," Diego reassured her. “He is dead, Ania. When you pushed that gun over to save me, you know the shot hit him. According to a comment Capitán Cosío made as he was questioning de Irujo, Rodríguez died just a few minutes later.”

Unbidden visions of the men standing over her father and brother arose in Ania's mind. She heard Rodríguez all but bragging about how he had planned everything and sent those men to kill all of them. Ania thought of all the times in the last eighteen months that she had daydreamed or mumbled of how she would make Rodríguez pay for the harm he had done to her and her family, if she had only been a man. She thought of how just tonight she had told him that his death was coming and it would not be long. He had taken that to mean she intended for Zorro to carry out her prediction, and deep in her heart, she had believed that he might. Yet, when it had come down to it, however accidentally, it had been Valdéz hands that had exacted payment for insults to Valdéz honor and Valdéz hands that had exacted blood for spilled Valdéz blood. "Good! I am glad I killed him!" she cried, her voice shaking with emotion.

Diego looked down at her in concern and pulled her more tightly into his arms. Ania was pale and trembling. He knew that he was not the only one who had not slept lately. Ania needed sleep, uninterrupted sleep. He looked up at Bernardo who was watching them with a worried frown. "The sleeping potion on my mantel. Bring it here." Diego often claimed to have problems sleeping. He kept a bottle of sleeping potion in his room, just in case he ever had to convince anyone of his truthfulness. Bernardo hurried up the passage to do his bidding.

"I am sorry," Ania said shakily. "I should not be this weak. The worst is over now. I should not be sitting here, crying like this."

Diego gently wiped her tears away and lifted her chin. "Ania, you do not have to ever say you are sorry for letting me see how you feel. Is that not part of us loving one another, being able to show how we feel, our real selves, without shame? You are not weak. You have been through a horrible experience and handled it amazingly well. I was so proud of you when you picked up that sword tonight and proceeded to defend yourself so I could concentrate on Rodríguez! Querida, a weak person could never have done that. You were unbelievably brave tonight!"

Ania managed to smile and laugh quietly. "You can say that even after I 'injured' you as we leaped over the gorge?"

"Yes! Even after that," Diego laughed. That was better. Ania was beginning to return to herself. He looked up as Bernardo came back in with the bottle and a glass. He took the glass and held it for Ania to drink.

"No, Diego, I am all right now. I promise," she said. "I really do not...."

"Come on. You still need sleep," Diego insisted. "Look, you knelt in this very room and saw that I drank every foul dose of medicine and herbs you could think to inflict on me when I was hurt."

"But I did that for your own good," Ania said.

"And I am doing the same thing for you now," he continued.

Ania looked up at him for a minute; then finally smiled weakly and asked, "If I take this, will you get some rest as well?"

"Sí," he agreed. As Ania began to drink the potion, he continued, "At least for a short while." Ania stopped drinking and looked up at him uncertainly. "Ah-ah!" he said. "All of it, mi amor. Drink every drop."

Ania smiled slightly and did as she was told.

Diego tenderly nestled her head against his shoulder, keeping her in the curve of his arm.

He propped himself a bit more comfortably against the wall of the cave and began telling her of how Pepe had been taking care of Ventura, as she had asked him to. He gave a spirited report of how Pepe had helped Zorro, as well. He waited for her to comment, but sooner than he expected, he looked down to find her sleeping on his shoulder. He ceased talking and gently placed a kiss on her forehead. Only then did he lean his own head against the top of hers and allow himself to drift off to sleep.

Don Alejandro hurried down the passage, wondering if Diego had returned yet. It was dawn. If he had not done so yet, it might mean trouble. He was relieved to see Diego sitting, with Ania in his arms, both of them asleep. He stood for a moment smiling down at the sight. However, the smile soon turned into a concerned frown. After all, the situation was not exactly proper. He looked uncertainly over at Bernardo, who had awakened as he had come in. "Uh, Bernardo, you are not to go anywhere and leave them alone, por favor."

Bernardo looked at him curiously. After all, just who would know if there had been a chaperone around or not while Ania was with Zorro? Surely, no one would question Zorro's honor.  However, he finally nodded 'yes'. Of course, he would stay if that was what Don Alejandro wanted.

Diego had awakened somewhat at this last exchange, but as tired as he was, it took him a minute to comprehend and respond to his father's words. As his father walked out, he sleepily opened his eyes and cocked an eyebrow at his friend and mozo, saying as clearly as if he had spoken words how ridiculous he thought the situation was.

Bernardo shrugged and then smiled. He supposed that for the next three days that was exactly what he would be if Don Alejandro wanted it that way. He would be Zorro's chaperone. He chuckled silently to himself. It was a bit funny at that.


Ania awoke several hours later to find Diego gone. At first, she thought that she was alone and wondered worriedly what was going on. However, in a few minutes, Bernardo came in smiling. "Where is Diego?" she asked as she began finger combing the tangles from her hair. She laughed as Bernardo handed her a comb that she had left upstairs when she and Ramón moved to the new hacienda. It was good that she had not taken everything with her. Now if she only had a change of clothes.

Bernardo made his gestures for Diego and the pueblo. He went on to indicate that he had gone to see Judge Vasca.

Ania remembered a little of what Diego had told her that morning when he had come back in. "Is Don Alejandro with him?" she asked. When he nodded, she smiled. No doubt they had gone to see if they could speed up the process of legally clearing her name. Even as she finished her hair, she heard their voices in the tunnel not far away. Smoothing her clothes as best she could, she was at the entrance to the tunnel by the time they walked in.

"Ania! You are finally awake, you sleepy head!" Diego teased, hugging her tightly as she rushed into his arms. Then he kissed her, a deep, long kiss that betrayed the depth of his emotions.

After a moment, Don Alejandro cleared his throat rather pointedly. Both Ania and Diego quickly looked up at him almost guiltily. Social conditioning was persistent, even under these circumstances. Then Diego looked toward Bernardo and laughed as Ania looked up at him with a questioning expression. "Not that you could convince anyone else of this, but Zorro was well chaperoned as you lay in his arms sleeping last night," he explained as he looked back down at her.

"Oh?" Ania met Bernardo's eyes teasingly. "Back to his old tricks already, is he?" Bernardo quickly signed someone talking to him and pointed to Don Alejandro. All three then looked at the older don.

Don Alejandro met their eyes with a slight frown. He linked his hands behind his back and rocked impatiently up onto his toes. "Humph! It was not Zorro that I was sure was chaperoned...but my son and a beautiful young woman under circumstances that might tend to...increase the...uh...emotional responses." He looked away, for once, flustered. "It is not exactly the usual circumstances to come in and find two unmarried people asleep in each other's arms, now is it? I can assure you that did not happen with your mother and me!"

"No," Diego laughed. "If I remember Mamá's tales of your courting, Uncle Esteban was there with his charming personality as often as she was. I'm sure you appreciated that a great deal."

"Humph!" was all his father said.

Ania smiled and decided to let Don Alejandro off the hook. "What did you learn in the pueblo this morning?" she asked Diego.

Diego walked over and perched on the edge of the table. "Judge Vasca has now had a chance to talk to all the conspirators and he is convening a new hearing for you."

"A new hearing!" Ania gasped. "You mean I have to go through another trial?"

"I do not think it will be as formal as that. It is just a part of the legal process, tedious, but necessary, and this time, I swear, I will be with you every minute," he vowed.

Ania closed her eyes. Even if the outcome was different, the idea of sitting across from Judge Vasca as the defendant again made her feel vaguely ill.

Diego squeezed her hand. "Perhaps he could do it with you absent, but I think it would be better if you were there," he said quietly.

Ania looked at him, her eyes filling with the trust she felt for him. "Then if you think I should, that is what I will do."

Diego smiled, his eyes shining as he recognized the reason for her decision.

So, that is how Ania came to find herself a few hours later finally returning to her own home. Zorro had delivered her to the gate of her hacienda long enough before the hearing so she could clean up and dress in more appropriate clothing. In addition to a joyous welcome from her servants, she was treated to the wonderful news that Ramón been awake and already complaining of people 'hovering' over him. He had been asleep during the short time she was there, but the doctor had assured her that he would make a full recovery. Much to her embarrassment, Ania had cried with relief. 

It seemed that they owed a special thanks to Bastián. Don Alejandro had asked him to keep a close eye on Don Ramón as soon as he was recovered enough to do so, without letting anyone else know what he was doing. Bastián had gone beyond the call of duty in this. He had actually removed some of the shelves in the wardrobe beside Ramón's bed and hidden there. When Pancho had come sneaking into the room and picked up a pillow, intending to suffocate the ambassador as he lay helpless before him, Bastián had burst out of the wardrobe, leaping on the assailant, nearly beating him unconscious. Then he had tied him up, hand and foot, and throwing him over the saddle, had delivered the assassin to the cuartel like a sack of rotten potatoes.

Ania managed this time to change to a more formal dress and her hair was neatly styled as she prepared once again for a hearing. Diego came for her in a carriage, his presence a constant comfort and support for her as she turned herself in directly to Judge Vasca and then waited for the procedure to begin.

This time things went a great deal differently. There were frequent astonished whispers in the watching crowd as Rodríguez's plot was laid out for all to see. Tomás had taken the stand to angry outcries, but soon had the public's sympathy as he held his head high and told of how de Irujo had threatened to kill his family if he did not do as he was told. As he finished, he looked at Ania and said, "Señorita Ania, I beg you to forgive me. Had my children's lives not been in their hands, I would never have done anything to hurt you." His eyes shone with tears as he finished.

Ania looked at Judge Vasca for permission to speak, and at his nod, she smiled gently. "Tomás," she said. "We all do whatever it takes for the sake of the people we love. There is no shame in that. I have already forgiven you of your part in this. You were a victim of this evil just as I was." Tomás nodded and left the witness chair.

Shortly after that, Judge Vasca sat silent for a few moments and then looked up at her and declared his new ruling. "Ania Cristina Valdéz, I do hereby reverse all rulings I previously passed down in this case. It is clear to me that a monstrous fraud was attempted on all of us involved. I am ashamed to admit that I was as easily hoodwinked by the far-reaching manipulations of this plot as anyone else. I am profoundly grateful that we were prevented from making the most horrible mistake of all with the dawning of this day. All of our mistakes are correctable, except that one." Judge Vasca shook his head before he continued. "It is a shame that Capitán Rodríguez did not use his considerable ability to conceive and carry out a plan for the good of our country. Spain would have been stronger for it. Señorita Valdéz, you have my apology, both personal and as a representative of King Fernando VII and the rightful government of Spain."

As he gaveled the hearing to a close, Ania stood and closed her eyes in relief as the onlookers cheered their approval in the background. Diego stepped up behind her and spun her into his arms, hugging her tightly and finally, ignoring the people all around them, kissed her. "I told you everything was going to be all right!" he said, his eyes shining with the joy he felt.

Holding his hand, she began to work her way through the crowd, responding to congratulations on all sides. Finally, they reached the open air and stood for a moment looking around. Standing near the door was Sergeant García, acting comandante once again, and Corporal Reyes. Both were smiling delightedly at the outcome of the whole incident.

"Diego," she suddenly said, after they had greeted the two soldiers, "There is something that I forgot in the cell last night, my mother's rosary. I must go back and get it." Then she puzzled them all by insisting that the two soldiers accompany them back to the cuartel.

On the way across the plaza, they paused as a joyous voice rang out behind them. "Señorita Ania! Señorita Ania! Wait!" Pepe Mería cried as he raced toward her.

"Pepe!" Ania laughed as she stepped forward and was nearly knocked off her feet by the boy's enthusiastic hug. "Ah, if it is not one of last night's heroes! Zorro told me what you did."

Pepe grinned. "Aw, Señorita Ania, I did not do too much. Señor Zorro would have gotten out of that man's way by himself, probably. After all, Zorro can do anything! I just wanted to give him a little more time to do it."

"Well, that was not what he told me," Ania insisted. "He said that you saved his life, Pepe! By the way, just how did you happen to be in that tree?" Ania glanced up at Diego. She remembered him saying something about wanting to know that.

"Well, when I told Zorro about the men at the cave, he told me to go get the lancers and then go stay at the de la Vega stables with Ventura. I did go get the lancers. I was hoping they would need me to lead them to the cave, but Sergeant García knew the way. I thought about what Zorro, and Sergeant García, told me, but then I thought that maybe... well...maybe I could get to the cave before the soldiers. At first, I thought that Zorro might need some help, but...well, I think maybe I just thought I could hide and watch everything happening," Pepe confessed.

Sergeant García shook his head and frowned at the boy. "That was a very dangerous thing to do, Pepe. What if they had seen you?"

Pepe shrugged. "But they did not!" His face lit up with excitement. "You should have seen it, Señorita Ania! When El Zorro started fighting with that man, they began to move closer to where I was." Pepe then looked a bit sheepish. "I...I thought that if Zorro saw me there, he would be angry that I had disobeyed him. That is when I decided to climb up into the tree. He would not see me there. I guess it is a good thing I did that. He did need me, a little bit, maybe."

"I am sure he did, Pepe! Thank you for your help for him and for me," Ania said as she quickly hugged him again and kissed him on the cheek.

Pepe jumped back and rubbed his cheek. "Señorita Ania! Ten-year-olds do not need kisses!"

"Ten?" Ania asked hiding a smile, as the others stifled chuckles at the boy's chagrin. "Why, Pepe! I had forgotten your birthday. I will have to think of a very special reward for a ten year old hero."

Pepe grinned and started to speak again, but stopped as they heard his mother call him. He looked at Ania a minute and surprised her by hugging her again just before he dashed off to his mother. "Apparently, hugs are all right, if kisses are not," she said, amused. Laughing, they all continued on to the cuartel.

After she retrieved her rosary from the floor of what had been her cell, she saw that Reyes and García were standing side by side, looking a bit sobered by the reminder of last night. Ania glanced around to make sure that no one else was near. She smiled mischievously at Diego for an instant, as he stood, arms crossed with a perplexed look on his face. He knew she was up to something, but could not figure out what.

"You know, mi amigos," she began, "it has been suggested to me that perhaps the reason Zorro and I were able to get out of here last night against the odds was that an angel was watching over and guiding us. I think that very well might be so. However, whether there was a heavenly angel here or not, I can think of two very much earthbound angels who WERE here. I cannot thank you enough for your help."

"Oh, we really did nothing, Señorita Ania," García said as Reyes nodded.

"Nonsense, Sergeant," Ania insisted. "In addition to what you two had done for me before Zorro came, I know there was something very important you both did. I am sure no one else saw it. Even Zorro was too busy to realize it, but I saw what happened. Sergeant, I saw you "stumble" into that line of lancers preparing to shoot at us. You may be a large man, Sergeant García, but you are not THAT clumsy! And Corporal Reyes, you will never get me to believe that the stack of boxes, having remained standing through the explosion, would suddenly fall at just the right time to spoil the other lancers' aim, as well. Again, I do not believe Zorro saw that, but I did and I thank you for both our lives." Ania quickly stepped up, and before anyone realized what she intended, kissed each lancer on the cheek, causing the sergeant to sputter and look pleased and the smaller corporal to blush beet red. "I know that I had two angels dressed in red and blue standing right there."

Diego looked at the two men solemnly for a moment. "Then it appears that I owe you both an apology. It seems that I misjudged you when I thought you would do nothing to help Ania. You have my sincerest thanks for anything you two did. You will be welcome in our hacienda as long as either of us lives," he said, as he stepped up and lay his hands on Ania's shoulders.

"Ah, Don Diego, we were just glad to do what little we could," Reyes said.

"Sí!" García agreed. "If it had not been for Zorro, it would not have been enough, I am afraid. I think we were all very fortunate that he was on our side for once! Now we have only your wedding fiesta to look forward to, what, just over two days from now, sí?"

Two days! Just two more days! her heart finally sang again. "Sí, Sergeant. I am very fortunate, indeed! Now I can get on with my life, our lives." Ania looked up and met Diego's eyes. The happiness in them matched her own.




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