Transformations

Part II

by Linda Bindner

For a second, Diego stood, rooted where he was standing on the wooden floor, staring stupidly at the empty corner of Victoria's supply closet. He wondered vaguely if he couldn't have left the sword someplace else in his haste, but he knew that he hadn't.

Then, his turgid brain sprang back to life, and he gasped in a breath of horror.

The sword was gone, which meant that someone had had to find it, which in turn meant that someone must have heard them and spied on him and Victoria through the slit in the kitchen curtains... Which meant that such a person had just heard every word that he and Victoria had said to each other... And he had verbally admitted to being Zorro...

Then, Diego's brain jumped to the most obvious, but his most hated, conclusion: he had been found out... discovered... It was his worst nightmare of all times...

It had to have been someone... a bandit, a lancer looking for a promotion, a poor peasant bent on trying to feed his family... It didn't matter who it had been... What mattered is that someone had come into the tavern to rob it or steal Victoria's extra tamales out of the closet after she had closed... It meant that someone had his sword, a very recognizable weapon... Which meant that he or she would have immediately known that the sword belonged to Zorro... Which meant that the person who had been in the kitchen must have realized Zorro's secret identity. He or she would have immediately gone to the Alcalde, who was offering a substantial reward for Zorro's capture, which meant that even now, the Alcalde could be rousing the lancers from their sleep and coming to the tavern to confront the man who was known to be Zorro, and capture his most hated enemy...

The second that thought coalesced in his mind, Diego whipped back around. Victoria! he silently screamed.

Diego sprang to the back door, coherent enough to lock the portal before he ran on silent feet into the tap room of the tavern.

Diego, said Victoria with a congenial smile that turned more confused as he ran to the single candle sitting on the bar as soon as he had ascertained that she was all right. What are you doing? Where's your sword?

Barely hearing her questions, Diego picked up the candle and carried it to the table where Victoria was serenely sitting as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

His voice lowered to a whisper, Diego strained to hear through the walls to the outside of the tavern even while he spoke to her in a more serious tone than he had ever used before. Victoria, someone discovered where I put my sword... They took it... They'll go to the Alcalde, who will come here... DeSoto knows who I am! He heard her quiet indrawn breath, but he didn't pause to comfort her now. We have to move quickly... I'm going to blow out the candle, and the dark will cover us... I figure we have two, maybe three seconds, to run to the stairs, climb them, and go into the room at the top...

My room... Victoria whispered.

No! Diego harshly exclaimed. They'll expect that..! The room at the top of the stairs... I know it'll be dark, but you have to trust me...

He crossed to her other side, surreptitiously taking her hand in his and setting his sights on the stairs, so that he wouldn't inadvertently run into anything in the darkness when he blew out the candle. Thank goodness the shutters are closed, Diego thought in sudden gratitude.

I do trust you, Victoria whispered then, her voice as low as his.

He glanced at her, smiled in a vague manner, squeezed her hand, then whispered, Ready?

She gave a tiny nod of her head, and squeezed his hand in return. She tensed her leg muscles and rose just a fraction off the bench she was sitting on.

Quickly, too fast to be anticipated, Diego blew out the candle he'd left sitting on the table. Go! he urgently whispered.

They sprang together for the stairs to the second floor, and climbed up them, concentrating on not making a sound as his boots and her slippers struck each step. They reached the door to the bedroom that Victoria often rented to travelers, and Diego said a second mental prayer of thanks that the tavern didn't have customers on that night. It was so rare an occurrence not to have guests at the tavern that Diego could count the other times that the inn had been empty on the fingers of one hand...

They slipped into the room just as the unmistakable sound of someone throwing a shoulder, or shoulders, into the tavern's front doors assaulted their ears. The bolt on the doors held, but thuds carried up to the two of them, and lancers burst into the tavern just as Diego noiselessly closed the door of the bedroom, knowing their stealth had bought them a few minutes respite from the lancers' aggressions.

Stay! Diego commanded into the darkness that wrapped around them in the bedroom. He left Victoria's side for a brief moment as he took two large steps over to the desk that was part of every room's furnishings, and propped the desk's simple, four-legged chair under the door handle. There, that should hold them... but we can only expect to get a few moments...

Diego crossed to the window, dragging Victoria along behind him. She stumbled once in the dark, but on the whole, kept her footing. Again, Diego was grateful she was who she was, solid and dependable Victoria, always ready to undergo the hazards of life... Life was sure to get even more hazardous very soon, Diego bleakly admitted to himself.

Without waiting for her permission, Diego threw open the windows and placed his hands on the narrow sill. When he cautiously peeked through them, he saw only the empty alley down below. Good, they don't expect us to go this way, either, or DeSoto would have lancers guarding this route, as well as the front and rear doors of the tavern.

Victoria's voice sounded in his ear. How do you know he..?

Escape routes, Diego said shortly. It makes sense that I would try to escape... Then he turned his full attention to the escape from the tavern that he was planning. We'll crawl through the window onto the roof, stay low, then drop over the side to the ground - I've done it hundreds of times... whispered Diego in her ear this time. Good thing I spent all those nights visiting you in your bedroom as Zorro, but I never thought I would use my experience this way. He squeezed her hand again. Don't be afraid. It'll be over before you know it. He squeezed her fingers once more. I'll go first, since I'm so tall, drop to the ground, then catch you. He turned to face her, then. And don't worry... I will catch you before you hit the ground.

I know you will, Victoria's sincere whisper floated out of the darkness.

Suddenly, Diego was overcome by a sensation of love for her, yet he had to admit that the timing of such a sensation had a lot to be desired. Still, he bent down and placed a fast kiss on the top of her hair, near where her part was. Okay, here I go.

He raised his leg, stuck it through the open window, twisted strangely, then pushed himself through the opening. One breath later, he was on the roof and waiting for her to join him.

Victoria took a deep breath, then followed him. She wasn't quite as practiced as he was at contorting herself to fit through the small opening, but she placed her knee beside his leg and slipped through the window to sit next to him on the red roof tiles of her tavern. Then Diego closed the window behind them in order to deceive the Alcalde about how he and Victoria had escaped the bedroom.

As quietly as possible, and careful of every step he took on the unstable tiles spread as a refuge from rain, Diego slid down the slope of her roof until he felt the empty air of the edge with his boot. Then, he flipped over onto his stomach and soundlessly disappeared over the side of the building. There was the barest thud as his boots hit the dirt of the alley beside the business establishment.

Victoria took that noise as the signal for her to wriggle onto her belly and start her own descent. She gripped the roof with both her hands, then carefully lowered herself down until she felt his hand wrapped around one of her ankles. She didn't think about her next action first, but let go of the roof and fell into Diego's arms just as she was beginning to take the breath of air that being on her stomach had prohibited.

Good girl, Diego whispered into her ear as he lowered her to the ground beside him. Yet, the stray thought ghosted across his mind that it felt extremely good to hold her curves in his arms, even if it wasn't at all the appropriate time to be having such thoughts enter his head. He had to focus, instead, on their predicament if he wanted to keep both of them alive for the next hour!

With that severe admonishment to keep his mind on the business at hand, Diego whipped off his blue jacket that looked almost black in the darkness of night, and gave it to Victoria. Here, put this on... It will cover up your white shirt for awhile longer.

Without a word, Victoria took the offered coat and put it on, even though the evening was too warm for such clothing. Diego quickly unbuttoned his own caballero shirt, then shrugged out of it so the he blended in to the surrounding darkness with the blackness of his under shirt. He tucked the white caballero shirt under the black sash he always wore as Zorro.

Now, Victoria understood why he had always chosen to wear black as part of Zorro's costume. Besides it's dramatic appeal, she had to admit that the dark color made him more easily become one with the night. Didn't that black shirt always make you hot, though? she asked as she pushed the overly large coat's sleeves up her arms.

Victoria could just see the flash of Diego's teeth as he grinned at her question. Not nearly as hot as you make me, he answered on a whisper.

Victoria could hardly believe what she was hearing; how Diego could be in the most dangerous situation he'd ever faced and still have enough concentration left over to flirt was beyond her... I hope that I have the time to make you hot again in the near future, she said, half in jest and half in fervent prayer. She grabbed at his hand again when she had the sleeves of his coat pushed far enough up her arm to find her fingers. Where to next? she blithely asked.

Diego stroked her hand with his thumb, but wouldn't allow himself to show any more of his emotions as he started from the shadows naturally cast by the building. They were hurrying, but also moving with more stealth than they had moved with yet that night. Grateful for the cover that the darkness gave them, Victoria crouched down a bit lower to the ground and followed his lead out of the pueblo. A minute later, they had reached the tall grass on the outskirts of town. Diego slowed, but didn't stop as he directed them to some trees clumped together near the sleeping village.

Once they were under cover of the trees and the noise of their footsteps was garbled by the sound of limbs swaying in the wind, Diego leaned over to her and pressed his mouth to her ear. We can't go back to the hacienda... DeSoto will expect me to go there, and be waiting for us...

Then where will we go? Victoria breathed into his shoulder. She couldn't stop herself from briefly kissing the black cloth that covered his skin. Again, she felt him squeeze her hand.

The cave, Diego said on another puff of air in her ear.

What cave? she asked.

My cave, he readily answered. The one where I proposed to you. The one that's been a well-guarded secret for years, but now is not the time for secrecy, he added. I only hope that Felipe will keep DeSoto out of the cave long enough for us to get there, get in, collect what we need, and get out, all before he has to give the Alcalde some little tidbit of information to keep him at the hacienda where I know the lay of the land much better than he does. Even as he spoke, he knew that he was asking a lot from the young man.

Will that help? asked Victoria as they began moving in a northeasterly direction away from the pueblo.

I hope so, Diego whispered to her. That will give me an undeniable advantage, and I can use all the help I can get right now, he quipped. Then, he glanced at her as they entered a patch of moonlight, and he saw her white, luminous face. He grimaced at the expression of concentrated fear in her eyes. I won't lie to you, Victoria... This situation is about the worst possible situation I can imagine. I don't know how we're going to get out of this one without any bloodshed, he admitted. Even his whisper sounded like he had only the slimmest of hopes to still end the plight he and she found themselves participating in on this night without spilling any blood...

Victoria grabbed at his arm with her free hand. I know how you feel about killing, but... You do what you have to do, she said to him, lending what support she could for him in their current amount of danger.

Again his teeth flashed white at her support, then the determined smile disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Thank you, Victoria. You don't know what hearing that means to me.

I can only guess... she said back to him.

To the cave then, he reminded. You're about to find out more of my real personality and what I do than you have ever imagined, he said.

I've imagined quite a lot, she imparted next.

I bet you have, he whispered back. Still, he tugged on her hand. Come on.

Half an hour later, after a fast walk through the surrounding countryside, Victoria and Diego crouched behind some bushes near a rocky outcropping and surveyed the scene before them. Everything appeared to be quiet and undisturbed near the small tree that hid the cave's back entrance from sight.

What do you think? Victoria asked.

Diego surveyed the area again, then seemed satisfied that they had beaten the Alcalde and his troops to their destination. The sound of a large group of riders galloping in the distance made up his mind for him, then.

That's DeSoto and the lancers, Diego informed dryly.

A minute later, the two fugitives saw a dark, shadowy group of riders appear at the top of a hill on the horizon. Without reservation, they were riding hard in the direction of the de la Vega hacienda. Diego muttered, I hope Father is still drinking coffee at Don Jose's, but we don't have the time to find out... With that, he slowly led Victoria out into the open, and stomped on the spring concealed in the ground outside the cave's door. A second after that, the door swung open, and Diego furtively led Victoria into the cave, making certain that he went first.

But the lighted lantern that he had tended to before he left the cave that afternoon sat exactly where he had placed it, at the end of the short passageway that led to the cave's rear exit. Not really anticipating any trouble, Diego slowly steered Victoria down the short passage and on into the cavern that housed Toronado, who was unconcernedly eating hay and wuffling through his nose at the intruders that had suddenly entered his domain. The serene sight encouraged Diego even further, and he held the lantern up high to bring the rest of the cave into sight. Nobody greeted them with an order to surrender, and nothing seemed disturbed on the worktables or his desk.

But Diego wasn't entirely satisfied until he had indicated a need for silence by putting a finger to his lips before he crept towards the corner near the passage leading into the hacienda. He peeked around the stone wall, but no one was waiting for them in the cold, silent avenue.

Once Diego had ascertained that the cave was, indeed, empty, he visibly relaxed. Good, he breathed. No one has been in here all day.

Victoria had grabbed onto the end of his shirt, then purposefully pried her fingers loose when it became apparent that the cave was empty. They were safe, for now. She heaved a grateful sigh, and the sound washed throughout the empty cavern.

Diego turned to her. You're not frightened, are you? he asked, a small, incredulous smile on his face. The idea of Victoria being frightened of anything was highly ludicrous to him.

She surprised him when she affirmed, Frightened to death. for a minute, she weakly rested her head on his arm and just breathed as she attempted to quiet her thundering heart beat. After several quiet moments, she explained, I'm sorry, but anyone who has already lost both her parents to the storm of fate would be frightened. But I'm all right, now.

Instantly, Diego felt contrite as he reached for her elbows, helping to support her. I'm so sorry, Victoria, he said. I guess I just didn't think...

But she had moved away from him, drawing the edges of the coat he had given to her close about her body to ward off the chill in the cave. Tell me about Felipe, she ordered, then, as a distraction to her thoughts.

Felipe? questioned Diego.

Yes, you mentioned him earlier... Does he know about you and... She didn't know quite how to say it, so she just said, ... and Zorro?

Diego followed her towards his desk, but dutifully complied to her request. Um... yes, I guess you could call him my assistant... Then, he reminded himself that they had a job that they needed to do if they were ever going to beat the Alcalde and get out of this situation alive. He visibly shook off the effects of being in the safe lull the cave had wrought, and crossed to the arsenal hanging on the wall. He pulled down one of his practice swords after a short, internal deliberation as to which one he should choose. Next, he opened the drawer of the small dresser below the arsenal, and pulled out a second black shirt and black trousers. He tossed them to his companion. Here, put these on while I saddle Toronado. They should keep you safe in the dark that we so often find ourselves getting friendly with.

Victoria caught the clothes in her hands, but placed them, still folded, on his desk in a neat pile of material. I'll do that, but in a minute... She closed her eyes and placed a hand on her forehead. She looked for a moment as if she were terrified. I just need to.., she softly started to say.

Diego was instantly beside her, setting the sword he carried on his desk and gathering her up into a tight embrace. I'm so sorry, Victoria, he whispered again. I get so carried away by the excitement of things that are happening that I often forget...

It's all right, Diego, she interrupted as she shivered and lay her head on his chest, the highest she could reach on him.

You're so brave, preciosa, Diego whispered next, and kissed her affectionately on her head. I couldn't have asked for anyone to be braver than you are...

She gulped a breath, then laughed a bit hysterically. I'm not brave, Diego, she corrected. I just do what I have to do to survive. There's nothing brave in that.

Diego tilted her face up towards him with the tip of his finger until he felt as if he were swimming in the light reflected in her dark brown eyes. That's bravery in my book, he tenderly said, and smiled. He brushed her wild hair out of her eyes and kissed her on her cheek. With her eyes closed as they were, she was still aware of the gentleness that was practically dripping from the ends of his fingers.

She drew one last shuddering breath, then smiled and whispered, You know, I love you, Diego.

He grinned in answer to her. Then all of this is more than worth it. He gently rubbed her nose with his, fondness alight in his features. He couldn't resist bringing his lips to just barely touch hers in a feather light kiss that promised so much that he left her aching enough to forget all about her fears. Fervently, she once again clutched at his shirt front with her hands.

His next kiss tickled her soul and made her shudder once more in his arms as she answered his sudden passion for her that he felt, but had always tried to control in the past when they had met in her tavern's kitchen. Now, he indulged in the emotions for a glorious moment, and the world and all its troubles slid away...

Within seconds, Diego was lost in her smell, in the feel of her skin, in the touch of her lips on his, so soft and tender... He kissed her and reveled in the abandon of his usual constraint, giving in to his true feelings for her for the first time, loving her in a rain of soft, gentle kisses that crossed the expanse of her cheeks and into the sweet smell of her hair...

Then he stopped himself; he couldn't take the time right now to indulge those feelings. Perhaps he'd have time later, when he and she weren't facing possible annihilation from his most ardent enemy... On the other hand, her supple curves had never felt better under the gentle strokes of his fingertips...

Determined, Diego drew away, but then crushed her to him in a stranglehold. What would I do without my Victoria? Diego rhetorically asked into the quietly chilled air of the cave. He sighed, cherishing her for just a moment's respite. The hug was simultaneously as strong as steel and as soft as velvet.

The moment of embraces passed, then they drew apart again as the unmistakable and indistinct voice of the Alcalde drifted to them through the walls. Diego kissed her a final time, then let her go. Afterwards, he placed the sword he'd left lying on his desk into his sash. He comfortingly rubbed her arms. We should hurry, he reluctantly insisted.

Victoria looked as loath to part as he was, but she dutifully drew back and reached for the clothes stacked on his desk. Diego moved to the big stallion at one side of the cave and pulled the bridle down from its peg on the wall. When he finished buckling its final strap, he hefted the big black and silver saddle into his arms. He had just thrown the tool over Toronado's back when Victoria stopped him.

Do you have any rope? she asked, and he turned to stare at her as she stood beside his desk.

The black clothes covered her entire body, certainly, but she appeared to be swimming in black material more than wearing a tailor-made outfit. The shirt reached almost to her knees, and the sleeves had been rolled back several times before her fingers were free enough to hold the waist of the large trousers closed next to her skin. Trying hard not to chuckle at the site of Victoria being swallowed by his clothes, he crossed to another peg on the wall, took down a coil of rope, then tossed it to her.

Victoria deftly caught the rope one-handed, then glanced around until her eyes lit on a second practice sword dangling from its pegs in the wall in the arsenal of weapons that Diego kept on hand. She pushed the rope through the belt loops on the trousers, then carefully lifted a sword from its pegs in order to slice the needed piece off the rope.

That's sharp, Diego cautioned then. He winced at the sight of the large, ungainly weapon in Victoria's hands. You might want to be careful with that.

Sword in one hand, and the other holding up the trousers, she turned to him with a tiny smile adorning her features. I'll be fine, she said, then. I do run a tavern, after all.

Somehow, I don't think running a tavern is the same as wielding a sword, Diego ruefully commented back.

But Victoria snorted. That's what you think, she said, obviously enjoying the verbal sparring session with him if her sarcastic voice was any indication. Ever tried running a tavern before?

Diego affectionately smiled at her words, shook his head, then turned back to his task of saddling Toronado. She knew he had never run a tavern before...

When he had finished, so had she. The rope was cut and tied around the trousers, and the sword was back in place on the wall. The trouser legs had also been turned up several times until her feet just peeked out of the black leggings. The remainder of the rope was coiled neatly and lying in a pile on his desk. Ready, she said.

Diego nodded, but just as he held his hand out to her to help her mount, showing that he, too, was prepared to face the world outside the cave walls, and accepted what that entailed, Felipe and his father suddenly rounded the corner and bound down the steps into the cavern.

Felipe! Father! Diego exclaimed in quiet astonishment. What are you doing down here?

Alejandro appeared as astonished as Diego sounded. He stared questioningly at his son, a person who he had heretofore believed to be far too inept to be connected to the masked crusader, and he was definitely staring at his son dressed in the masked crusader's clothes. And as Diego was currently standing in a secret cave in his own hacienda, and as Diego was with Victoria, a woman known to be in love with the famous outlaw, Alejandro could only deduce that his son and Zorro were one and the same.

It all hit him like a ton of adobe falling on him. Alejandro also realized in a flash of mental inspiration that such an identity also meant that his commentary and the criticisms he'd said said to his son in the past, while kindly meant, were not so kind after all. Alejandro was slowly comprehending this, and Diego saw one conclusion after another as it expressed itself on the older man's face, but he no longer had the time to help his father through all the intricacies of his identity...

But Felipe, on the other hand, looked entirely pleased with himself. The young man gestured quickly as Alejandro glanced around with a look of abject astonishment mixed with contrition on his face.

Diego translated aloud, 'You stared at the sitting room fireplace, and you left the Alcalde and his men trying to find the entrance to the secret cave there while you grabbed Father and led him down here when all the soldiers' backs were turned.' Diego breathed out a hiss of air as he mentally admired Felipe's cleverness and audacity. Very good, Felipe. Very brave and thoughtful of you... You'll be safe here for the moment, but it won't take DeSoto long to figure out where you've gone. You won't be indefinitely safe, even here... Diego conspiratorially lowered his voice. Use the back entrance to escape to the stables. I want you to ride first to Don Carlos Saluda's hacienda... it's the closest... and tell them what's going on... tell them everything, and ask him to send about ten armed vaqueros here, to wait in the woods to the west of the hacienda, but that they should stay hidden until they hear from me. Then, go to Antonio Tenede's hacienda and tell them the same thing. Don Carlos and Don Antonio need to keep enough vaqueros on hand so that they have a solid defense of their haciendas in case they need it, but have them send the rest here. Then, stay at Don Antonio's! You'll be safe there. Victoria and I will ride to the Fuentes' hacienda and bring back several vaqueros as well.

But Diego, protested Don Alejandro with a pucker of uncertainty between his eyes. Then, suddenly, he apparently changed his mind on what he was going to say and instead intoned, I understand that we need to talk about the fact that you're down here in the first place, and that you seem way too comfortable in this cave for it to be your first time here, but... Forget about that until later. He visibly rerouted his attention to more pressing concerns. Won't that many vaqueros be too many men for you to lead at once?

Diego explained, I want to have an army available to back me up and take out the soldiers if we have to. He shook his head. I don't plan to face DeSoto unless I know that his soldiers are outnumbered and outgunned. Then he added, But you're right, Father, I think it's time we had a talk.

Alejandro laughed mirthlessly. I'll say we need to talk! But, again, that can wait. You'll have thirty or so men compared to DeSoto's... How many lancer's does he command?

Fifteen, last time I counted, Diego told them.

Alejandro looked impressed that Diego knew such information, but then, the man who was secretly Zorro would know everything that there was to know about the pueblo of Los Angeles.

Diego held out his hand and offered to assist Victoria in mounting Toronado, but she lunged up into the saddle on her own. Diego smiled slightly at her show of independence, then climbed up behind her. Diego went on, I'll tell you the entire story when all this is over... Until then, good luck, ride hard, and stay safe! Then he steered the great black stallion out of the cave, through the tree hiding its exit, and set off at a trot towards the Fuentes' hacienda. Though he felt the urge to hurry pound inside him, a trot was the fastest pace he dared set over such uneven and only faintly familiar ground as that leading in the direction he wanted to go. In another second, the dark of night had completely swallowed him, Toronado, and Victoria up.

Z Z Z

The side of the Fuentes' hacienda was made of an adobe wall surrounding an adobe house, just as the de la Vega hacienda was surrounded by a protective wall. Diego stared at the wall, tried his best to remember the location of Don Eduardo Fuentes' bedroom, then dismounted in the darkness. He automatically reached up to help Victoria dismount, and she slid to the ground beside him.

She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, I didn't expect to be allowed to come along on such a dangerous and shaky mission, if you want to know the truth.

Diego grimly smiled at her. He whispered back, It may be dangerous to break into another man's house, but it's far more dangerous to leave you here and possibly have you fall into the hands of the Alcalde. Diego went on to explain, Not only do I not want you used by him as bait to capture me, but I admit that I don't want you to come to any harm, either.

Well, that's something, she groused. It's not very flattering to know that I'm only being asked to come along so that I won't be used against you.

Diego shrugged. I might go out of my mind with worry if you're captured, and who knows what I'm likely to do if that's the case? It's much safer to keep you by my side than it is to leave you behind. And besides, I like to keep you nearby... It works out best for all involved this way.

Victoria grinned at him. She leaned in close again and found his ear to whisper, I admit that I totally agree with your conclusions. Then she smiled again. Though I've never broken into anyone's house before. I'm a little nervous.

Diego took a second to quickly, albeit affectionately, kiss her on the forehead. We can't knock on the front door, or we risk rousing the entire household, and word about this plan of mine may reach DeSoto's ears - I can't risk that. But it's been so warm lately, that Don Eduardo should have his window open for the night, and we'll just crawl through the opening. Come on, I'll go first, he soothed at the same time he encouraged.

Diego jumped to the top of the wall, and reached it easily because of his height, then hauled the much shorter Victoria up beside him. They dropped noiselessly to the ground on the other side of the wall, and proceeded around behind the single level hacienda until they came to the open window that Diego was sure led to Don Eduardo's bedroom. The darkened room was not inviting, but Diego pushed himself through the opening without any hesitation, and Victoria, after closely watching how he orchestrated the entire process of bending his large body practically in half to fit through the smaller window, followed suit.

They found themselves in a large space, that was instantly filled with the sound of the steady breathing of a person sleeping. Diego leaned down, careful to keep the sword that he'd imprisoned in his sash from hitting the side of the bed, and placed his hand over Don Eduardo's mouth.

The caballero snorted, then his eyes popped open to show fear in the slice of moonlight that filtered through his open window.

Sh! Diego commanded, then. I'll lift my hand as soon as I'm fairly certain that you won't yell for help from the others in the hacienda.

Then, it was obvious by the light that filtered through his eyes that Don Eduardo recognized Diego.

At this point, Diego cautiously lifted his hand away.

Don Diego? came the whispered, incredulous voice of Don Eduardo from the bed the instant Diego removed his fingers from his mouth. A second later, after a careful scrutiny by Don Eduardo, amazed, he asked, Good God, why are you dressed up like that? If the Alcalde sees you, he might take you for Zorro and shoot you on sight and ask questions later. Then, he noticed Victoria standing behind Diego, who was kneeling beside his bed, and he did the once over with his eyes again. Why the hell do you have the Escalante woman with you? What's going on?

Naturally incensed at the caballero's more flamboyant use of words, Diego tried to curtail his flare of anger, and whispered, Don Eduardo, I need your help, but I ask that you please try to curtail your language in front of Victoria; the Alcalde may be in my own house right now, and I may currently be a fugitive from the law with a price on my head, and I may need to stay in your good graces, so I shouldn't say anything, but the reasons I've given are no reasons at all for any of us to lose our heads and to spend time cursing.

Don Eduardo lay still on the bed, clearly angry himself at being told to watch his tongue in his own house, but his anger passed the minute a sudden realization struck him. Oh, my God, you can't tell me that you're Zorro? he spluttered in surprise with another look at Victoria. Then, he glanced back at Diego. I mean, Diego, everyone knows that you hate aggression of any kind! he went on. I can hardly believe that it's been you catching bandits and fighting the Alcalde for years! he ridiculed.

Diego grimaced. Personally, Don Eduardo, I don't quite care what you are able to believe right now, but I am Zorro, someone turned me in tonight, so DeSoto knows who I am, has the de la Vega hacienda surrounded, and I need ten or so armed men in order to surround the Alcalde in turn and take him and his soldiers by surprise... it's the only way I can possibly beat the Alcalde at his own game... I have to have a veritable army to back me up and threaten his lancers, or I may be cut to ribbons before I even reach DeSoto. Are you tired enough of DeSoto's unfair taxation and edicts to get him relieved of his post as alcalde, or not? Can I count on your support or have I dragged poor Victoria to the wrong hacienda? After that whispered speech, Diego sat back on his heels, but held his breath as he waited for Don Eduardo to reply.

Don Eduardo lay, unmoving, on the bed again as he tried to process all that Diego had told him. The way his eyes flickered over every detail of Diego's face told Diego and Victoria that he was attempting to overcome years worth of wrong assumptions on his part. Finally, in a weak voice, he protested, But you've always detested swordplay of any kind... I've heard your own father say so.

Diego readily answered the older caballero, My father told you what he thought he knew himself... Actually, I don't hate swordplay at all, and come up against it on a weekly basis, at least, every time I go after bandits or outlaws of any kind. It's only that I wanted everyone to assume that I hated swordplay of any kind so that I could project the image that would cause everyone to have the opinion that I was as different from Zorro as I could possibly be... Suddenly, Diego's brows puckered. Am I making any sense, Don Eduardo?

Eduardo stared at him with widened eyes. His gaze flicked to Victoria, then back to Diego. No, but don't let that stop you. And, again, why is it that the Escalante woman is in my bedroom in the middle of the night? He paused for a moment. It's hardly correct propriety for a woman to be in a man's bedroom, unless she's his wife, and I know that I don't have a wife, since my own dear Consuela died five years ago! So start explaining, young de la Vega, or whoever you are. I mean, if you please, he added at the last second. Again, his gaze flicked to Victoria, then back to Diego as they were both highlighted by the light of the fading moon.

Diego exhaled a slow breath, trying to keep his temper. I want to keep Victoria with me so I can at least try to keep her from being captured and used against me at a later time.

Smart, muttered Don Eduardo. That makes a lot of sense. I don't think I would have thought of such things that way.

I've had a lot of practice at thinking of things before they happen, Diego wryly responded. Now, I'm sorry, but we're in something of a rush here... Can I count on ten or twelve of your best men, armed with pistols or rifles, or anything that can shoot?

I thought Zorro doesn't kill? Don Eduardo questioned accusingly.

Diego sighed. He had not envisioned the need for such explanations when he asked the local caballeros for help. I don't, he answered readily enough. But just in case the lancers get trigger happy, I'd rather be able to repay them in kind with a show of force than be Victoria's next enchilada and full of holes. What do you say, Don Eduardo?

Don Eduardo sat up in bed, the sheets falling down to his waist to reveal a white nightshirt with far more lace then either Diego or Victoria would have expected. Victoria did her best to suddenly find the floor fascinating rather than look at his nightclothes. Give me a minute to dress, Don Eduardo stated as he tried to rub the sleep out of his eyes. You can wait for me in the sala, if you can remember where that is. I'll be with you in a moment. Now get out of here and let an old man get dressed, you young idiot! he growled, clearly at the end of his good manners and his patience.

Victoria and Diego had reached a darkened sala before Victoria spluttered with laughter. When Diego asked in a whisper, What's wrong? Victoria responded with more laughter before she could whisper her explanation.

The idea that anyone would call Zorro a 'young idiot' is highly amusing, she said. Why, you must be somewhere in your thirties! she exclaimed.

Diego smiled. I am thirty. I have a birthday next month, he told her.

I thought as much, Victoria said after she had calmed somewhat. But no matter how old you are, you've more than proved that you are not an idiot!

Diego's smile grew. I might be one tonight. We can only hope, though, that you're right.

I am, Victoria said with certainty, and Diego only wished he could share her opinion. But before he could say anything that agreed with Victoria's idea or not, Don Eduardo entered the sala, illuminated by the sparse moonlight that filtered in through a sliver of the window on the wall. You want ten men? he asked, coming immediately to the point.

Diego was grateful for the don's forthright attitude. If you have them and can spare them, he softly said.

Don Eduardo appeared to think for a moment, then he came to some kind of decision. All right, I'll wake up Tadeo and have him wake up the others. I can give your tavern owner here a couple of pistols, but most of my guns have my name engraved on them, and I assume you want everything to appear anonymous?

That's what I prefer, Diego admitted. That way, if I lose and we all are captured, there can be nothing besides your men, who's presence you can deny knowing anything about, that can lead any governmental investigation to you or your house.

Clearly admiring him, Victoria shook her head, then, and murmured, You've thought of everything.

Diego turned to her. I'd better, he said without any humor in his voice.

I'm going to see Tadeo now, said Don Eduardo. You two stay here for a minute and... twiddle your thumbs or something. He waved his hand through the air in a dismissive gesture, then disappeared into the darkness of the hacienda.

A few silent moments passed. Then Victoria's whisper sliced through the darkness clinging to them, Diego, I know you don't find it an unusual thing to slink around in the dark but... I admit that I'm still a bit scared.

Diego's arm wrapped around her waist. I know, he said. I can feel you shaking the air around you, he noted.

Even in the dark? she asked.

It's not so dark, Diego said. Look at how the moon makes everything a bit shadowed and highlighted. We can see the bulk of the furniture along the wall, and I can see you even if I can't see your face.

Victoria looked for a moment. Is that how you see things, even in the dark? she asked.

Seeing in the dark is just another way of comprehending our own world, Diego whispered. There's nothing to be afraid of... It's just dark, that's all.

You must spend a lot of time out at night, Victoria commented then.

I do, Diego affirmed. But not as much as I would have liked. I didn't come to see you as often as I would have liked, for instance.

Only about once every two weeks, Victoria noted dispassionately. She wasn't judging, simply reporting, as she continued, Sometimes more, sometimes less. But I didn't know your identity so I could come see you any more. Her voice was irritated again, and slightly accusing, but at least she wasn't still worried about being in the dark.

Diego squeezed her waist. And I'm sorry about that. The times I did see you never seemed to be enough, as far as I was concerned.

You can see me now, Victoria suggested. Then, she amended, 'See' is a relative term, of course.

Diego grinned again. I don't have to see you in order to kiss you, he informed.

True, she said. But you may have to prove that claim or yours.

That's easy, Diego declared, making sure to breath across her face so that she would know he had leaned down to her height. I can prove that right now... His lips met hers in a kiss as soft as Spring rain.

Victoria was just beginning to respond when a light from a candle suddenly spread around them.

Here, none of that! Don Eduardo said, halting them as he set the candle on a side table beside a couch. You'd think you two were already married, what with the way you're acting.

Diego drew back. Sorry, he apologized, contrite. We've had to be so careful in the dark all the time just to court... I guess we forget where we are half the time.

That's dangerous, considering who you are, Don Eduardo commented.

True. But we are engaged...

Don Eduardo's eyebrows reached for his receding hairline. Didn't know that, he said. Does your father know about that?

Diego sighed, sounding regretful now. No, he answered. He just learned about my identity tonight. And speaking of tonight's events... Were you able to convince this Tadeo to ride to my family's hacienda?

Don Eduardo drew in a deep breath. You are one lucky bastard, he said, then glanced at Victoria. Oh, I apologize, Seņorita. But Tadeo was having a party at his quarters... Fifteen men volunteered and ran home to get their hidden pistols before saddling horses and waiting for you out front.

Diego balked in surprise upon hearing this. I only asked for ten.

Don Eduardo went on, I know, but the minute I told them who you are... I had to tell them, as they would have found out eventually, anyway... I couldn't talk them out of volunteering.

Diego turned to Victoria. We should go, then. I don't want to keep anybody waiting just on us.

Oh, the pistols, Don Eduardo said, then walked to a cabinet alongside a wall, took a set of pistols down, and handed them to Victoria. They were followed by a few bullets in a bag of gunpowder that Victoria instantly strung around her neck. The pistols she tucked into the waist band of her black trousers. Loosening the rope around the waist of the pants gave the trousers a particularly snug fit. Diego tried not to think about how the deadly pistols were currently hugging her tighter than he was. Instead, he rerouted his attention back to Don Eduardo.

Well, good luck, my boy, said Don Eduardo awkwardly as he turned back to Diego. Send everybody home when you don't need them anymore. Or else I'll visit them all in jail, he ended.

I hope that's not the outcome of this night, Diego muttered. If it is, and they end up in jail, then the Alcalde won, and I'll be hanged. I don't want that to happen.

Not any more than we do, said Don Eduardo. So knock them dead. Then he corrected, In a manner of speaking, of course. He walked over to the front door and pulled it open. No need to jump over the wall on your way out. Oh, yes, I know how you got in here. Used to do the same thing when I was a boy. Then, he shook his head. Honestly, a grown man sneaking around... Wait until I tell Alejandro about all this...

I prefer that you don't, Diego said on his way through the door.

I bet you do, Don Eduardo said under his breath. Especially the bit about that engagement...

I'll handle it, Diego harshly whispered back. Then the door was shut, and he never knew what Don Eduardo was thinking about his comment.

Victoria shook her head. Honestly, I hear Don Eduardo cursing every week in the tavern... I don't know why he got so flustered about it. My ears are immune to things like that.

May they stay immune, Diego muttered as he grabbed her hand and led her out the front gate. At least, that's the plan.

All plans have the tendency to fall apart at the seams, Victoria sagely commented.

They had reached Toronado by that time, and Diego gave Victoria a hand to the broad back of the tall stallion. That's what worries me, he imparted as he joined Victoria in the saddle again.

The fifteen men were waiting for Diego and Victoria's appearance at the side of the Fuentes' hacienda, and fell into a sort of line behind them without even having to be told. This bodes well for the final outcome of this expedition, Diego thought to himself with a sense of rising optimism. That sense stayed with him as they traveled clandestinely back the way they had come in case the Alcalde had set spies in every direction that Diego could have gone from the de la Vega hacienda. It was obvious that Diego had been to the home, after all, and only one look into the secret cave would lead anyone to that conclusion. The rope still lay coiled on top of Diego's desk, in plain sight, a blade had clearly been removed from his arsenal of weapons, and Toronado was missing form the stall meant to house the large stallion. Even his saddle and bridle were missing. The only hope Diego had of his current location remaining a secret was to pray that DeSoto had not found his hideout, but Diego also knew better than to rely on hopes and dreams. It was his experience that they didn't come true more often than they did. But, just as the thought blazed across his mind, Victoria leaned back into him, as if sensing that he needed the reassurance of her warm and inviting presence. Diego had to admit, then, that if his biggest dream, that of holding a Victoria who knew of his secret and still accepted him, had come true, then anything was possible. More optimism flooded his frame, and he held on to Victoria as tightly as he could.

They neared the de la Vega hacienda, and it loomed like a hulking mass out of the indistinct blur of the shadowy horizon. Toronado and the fifteen vaqueros instinctively grew even more careful, picking their way over the dark ground. Soon, the woods behind the house hid them all from prying eyes. The minute they showed themselves in the woods, more vaqueros, men Diego knew had to work for the Saludas and the Tenedes, surrounded them, waiting patiently for further instructions.

Before Diego could even open his mouth to issue those instructions, a scuffle sounded loudly at the side of the hacienda's protective wall, and a man wearing a tall hat made an appearance and crouched down low to the ground. A second man paralleled his position on the other side of the hacienda. Soldiers, Diego said softly to the men surrounding him. Diego, Victoria, and the gathered vaqueros watched suspiciously to see what the two men would do next.

Nothing happened. The quiet of deep night continued, as the men watched the front of the hacienda, and Diego and the vaqueros watched the men. Surely DeSoto doesn't think that I will come to the front of the hacienda, Diego thought to himself in surprise. But that was clearly what the lancers were waiting for, to surprise an unwary Diego as he returned to his home.

Diego and the vaqueros waited for thirty minutes at least for other soldiers to appear, but none ever did. The two lancers were alone and at the mercy of anyone hiding in the woods. To himself, Diego wondered how DeSoto had ever risen to the post of alcalde if these were the only tactics he had been using, but he had to admit that DeSoto was far more clever than he appeared. His taxation strategies had kept Diego on his toes, even though Diego had always managed to overcome those destructive measures.

When the half hour was up, Diego decided to wait for first light, so that he and the vaqueros could see what they were doing. This prospect was quickly communicated to all the men and woman waiting in the woods, and the group settled down to the ground, prepared to get comfortable for the long night ahead of them.

Sunlight was just beginning to brush the Californian hills and valleys as Diego peered at what he could see of the hacienda from his place in the woods behind the house. The two lancers were clearly growing lax in their duties, as the quiet time wore on and no Diego appeared at the front of the hacienda. They had leaned their rifles tiredly against the side of the wall and were resting beside them when Diego whispered to the vaqueros surrounding him. I need our four quietest men. Instantly, four vaqueros stood beside him as he did his best to calm a fidgety Toronado. Creep up on the lancers by the wall and subdue them. Make sure to take their rifles, as well. Carry everything back here, and we'll tie up the soldiers, then unload their rifles. Now, go.

Diego's plan was carried out to perfection; the two lancers leaning calmly against the hacienda's wall never knew what hit them. With the precision of a team of covert operatives far better trained than a band of ragtag vaquero volunteers, the lancers were taken completely by surprise and didn't make a sound as they were first knocked unconscious, then bodily hefted into burly arms and carried back to Diego's position in the woods. The two soldiers were tied and gagged before they could sound an alarm of any kind.

Silence prevailed again as the sides of the house stayed empty. Then two more lancers appeared to peek around the wall, ready to investigate the protracted quiet. They were clearly highlighted by the sunlight as they each studied the abandoned positions, completely perplexed. Yet, those two more lancers were facing the wrong direction when the four silent vaqueros snuck up behind them and had carted them off as well before they knew what was happening.

That makes four lancers down, Diego counted carefully in his head. He porposefully praised the returning vaqueros, who seemed to glow in the glory of compliments from the man who was Zorro, and before Diego knew it, he had an army of vaqueros who would bend over backwards to his slightest whim.

Victoria eyed him wryly. Don't let it go to your head, she whispered.

Four more lancers were dispatched with the same amount of speed and silence, leaving only eight more soldiers to contend with. If DeSoto is as smart a tactician as the King claims he is, Diego quietly noted, he'll start to catch on about now. Sure enough, no more lancers appeared at the side of the hacienda to investigate the disappearance of their fellows, and Diego found himself considering and rejecting several strategies at once when one of the vaqueros approached him.

The vaquero whispered, If we move on them in one body, there will be minimal wounds to deal with.

I'd prefer that there was no bloodshed at all, Diego whispered back.

Then we need to surprise them even more, said the volunteer soldier.

Diego nodded. Let's sneak around the side of the wall and all cock the guns you're carrying at the same time. Perhaps a show of force might make more of a dent in the Alcalde's plans, now.

The vaquero nodded thoughtfully as Victoria suddenly appeared at Diego's elbow.

What do you want me to do? she asked in a low voice.

Watch over the men we've already captured.

Victoria grimaced. In other words, you want me to stay out of the line of fire, where I can't do any damage and let the men grab all the glory.

Diego turned to honestly regard her. I admit, if anything happenes to you during a raid that I ordered you to take part in, I would never forgive myself. I'd rather that you stay here and be safe than bring you out where the action is and have you possibly get shot again.

Victoria's grimace deepened, but she said, I have to give you credit; at least you're honest.

Thank you, preciosa, Diego murmured as he pulled his sword out of his sash.

But Victoria wasn't done with him. And what do I do if you get shot? she inquired sweetly.

Pray that that doesn't happen, Diego muttered out of the side of his mouth, cognizant that she had made a very real prediction.

Somehow, praying doesn't sound very useful, Victoria groused, but she pulled out her pistols, loaded them, and trained them on the four subdued soldiers lying on the ground.

Don't worry, Diego said, then, and smiled slightly in the cool night air. I'll instruct some of the men to stay behind with you, just to make sure nothing goes wrong with our friends here.

True to his word, Diego had the four quiet men remain behind to help Victoria guard the kidnapped lancers, but the rest crept stealthily up behind the hacienda, making their horses walk as that created less noise that might alert the soldiers. They could hear DeSoto barking orders long before they reached the sides of the house. Diego wondered if the Alcalde simply liked to hear himself speak as he listened to the crisp issue of commands. When he'd heard the Alcalde order Sergeant Mendoza into the hacienda to check on the prisoners inside, the vaqueros slid into positions around the house, leaving Diego free to make the first offensive move.

Boldly sauntering around the side of the wall, Diego rested his sword blade on his shoulder and openly regarded the remaining soldiers. Looking for me? he asked aloud, a note of amusement in his voice.

DeSoto whirled around to face Diego, who was unexpectedly standing behind him, the governmental man's face registering some surprise before the features tumbled into a sneer. Well, look what the cat drug in, DeSoto intoned. I thought you were busy hiding out in the pueblo.

You thought wrong, as usual, Diego answered.

Where have you been, anyway? DeSoto inquired next.

I've been busy gathering an army, Diego obligingly told him. And if you think the tactic of stalling for time with useless conversation, as nice as it is, will do you any good, think again.

DeSoto grimaced again at having his plans destroyed in one statement. You have men with you? he asked, sounding deceptively lazy.

Many, Diego answered as the sun suddenly rose high enough to highlight him in a halo of golden light. About thirty, I'd say, so your fifteen... no, sorry... remaining eight or nine are severely outnumbered, he congenially informed.

DeSoto stared at him, clearly trying to decide if Diego were telling the truth. I don't believe you, he announced then, obviously making his decision.

The booming sound of thirty guns being cocked at the same time reverberated throughout the morning air. Believe it, Diego said.

With the slowness and steadiness of the molasses Victoria kept in jugs at the tavern and used for flavoring her breakfasts, men began showing themselves one at a time, leading with their guns as they peeked over and around the protective wall, from the side of nearby outbuildings, and through the hacienda's front gates. With no aplomb, Sergeant Mendoza was thrust through those gates on his way back to join his men.

He was right in the front rooms, where he was ordered to go, said the vaquero who had captured the worried military officer.

I'm sorry, mi Alcalde, Mendoza opologized. They came up behind me...

Save it, DeSoto said, interrupting the man. I don't believe you'll fire, he said next to Diego.

Diego didn't even flinch. Shoot him in the leg, he ordered, and before anyone knew what was happening, one of the pistols went off and DeSoto went down with a lead slug firmly embedded in his leg. Good shooting, Diego admired, complimenting with eyebrows raised on his forehead in a show of supreme appreciation.

DeSoto lay on the ground, writhing in a greater show of pain than he was actually in, though that was substantial enough as it was.

Do you surrender? Diego quietly inquired.

Do I what? DeSoto asked incredulously, as if the idea of surrender was a foreign concept to him. Of course I don't surrender! he exclaimed from his place on the ground. Blood was seeping into the surrounding dirt, spreading its reddened stain across the road running past the hacienda. I'll cut you to ribbons with just a few lancers! he told them all, with far more bravado than good sense.

I look forward to that, but it should be a fight between just you and I, don't you think? Diego went on to ask. I have nothing against any of your men, after all. Unless they wish to die a brutally painful death at swordpoint, he continued, and swiped the air in front of him with his sword. The swing made his borrowed blade sing. It was the only encouragement the lancers needed, as they all dropped their rifles and raised their hands into the air with no further display of force. Smart men, Diego commented in an aside.

But DeSoto wasn't so impressed. Cowards! he called. A sword, no matter who wields it, is no match for a rifle at fifty paces!

But, Alcalde, Mendoza explained, that's Zorro with the sword! He shook his head. I'd rather have the pointy end of a sword, no matter who's holding it, pointing at someone besides me, if you please.

I don't please! DeSoto rumbled. I guess I'll have to fight you, myself! he yelled to his nemesis.

If you can get up and stand, I'll fight you, answered Diego. If not, we'll cart you to the jail and have Dr. Hernandez remove the bullet from your leg.

DeSoto instantly attempted to stand, and managed a wobbly sort of stance with most of his weight on his good leg. Come and get me! he goaded.

Diego raised his sword into a salute. If you insist, he replied. then strode forward to face the Alcalde in the de la Vega front yard. However, it wasn't much of a fight as Diego halted several feet from DeSoto, forcing the man to take a step forward to even reach him. DeSoto collapsed the second his weight was on his bad leg.

The man windmilled before Diego, and the masked man took the opportunity presented and disarmed his opponent, sending the sword skittering over the dirt. DeSoto grimaced again as Diego knelt down beside him. You have something that belongs to me, he noted in a pleasant voice that didn't fool anybody. It was hiding the sound of steel and determination under it. Where's my sword? Diego continued evenly.

Your sword, DeSoto exploded in wrath. Do you think I'm going to hand it over to the likes of you?

Diego gave a semblance of a grin. Yes, he said in a no-nonsense tone of voice.

Never! DeSoto told him.

Diego knelt even closer until he was peering at the wounded man. Only several feet separated them. It was the closest the two had come, though Diego stayed out of range of the Alcalde's bloody hands. 'Never' may come sooner than you might wish, Diego informed. You're the one lying on the ground, after all, he conversationally said.

And that's supposed to mean what? DeSoto ground out through teeth clenched against pain.

Surrender, and we take you to the doctor. Refuse, and we put another bullet in you, and this time I don't plan for my men to be as discriminating on where they choose to put it, Diego quietly told him, hoping that the man would be fooled by the look of resolve he had schooled his face into; he was a much better actor than he was a bully.

DeSoto was as fooled by the threat as he had ever been by his enemy's past statements. All right, all right, just make this pain go away! DeSoto said.

Diego leaned back on his heels. I can't promise anything, but...

The sound of a pistol firing off in the distance put an immediate halt to the conversation.

That came from the direction of the woods, Diego said to himself as his head jerked around at the distant sound. In the next instant, he had centered on the thought, Victoria!

Go on to Part III


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