Thanks to Arianka for inspiration and translating and to lbindner for beta reading.
For the first time Zorro gets to know the taste of the death’s kiss in the Perdido canyon. She reaches for him with a stray bullet that wounds Toronado, so the stallion throws his rider right into the precipice. And when he lies there among the rocks, he confuses the coldness of the stones with the hands’ touch and he thinks he sees her at the edge of his view, the silver-haired lady in a gray dress, with a face soft and calm like a dream, with her eyes like blue steel. He tastes blood in his mouth and he knows that death is somewhere near.
Since then more than once he thinks he sees her. Her light silhouette somewhere in the house’s shadows, caught in the corner of an eye when the musket balls fly around, a figure the color of smoke, partly hidden behind a curtain of the fire in a burning house, a shadow gliding on the wall, when he balances dangerously at the ridge of the roof, the sound of her light steps echoing in a half-collapsed mine or in the corridors of the Devil’s Fortress.
From time to time he is sure that his unexpected companion gives him a kiss. Bitter like a poison going through his veins, like the one that Palomarez used, or the contaminated water he accidentally drank; salty like blood, when he has to fight on the path of pain; burning like a venom of the rattle snake or the fire. And when he fought with Gilberto, she gave him even two. One was salty again, like the blood from his shot arm, the second one dry like the dust from the stones that fell on him.
These kisses are always unexpected and always give him a strange sense of peace, an invitation to taste them and lose himself. But Zorro knows he cannot do this, cannot allow one of them to become the last. So he fights doubly hard. He defends himself against becoming listless with effort, anger, pain and recollections of Victoria Escalante’s kisses. He sometimes dreams, that this swarthy spirited woman is opposite to this imagined, gray-dressed lady. But always then, when he fights, he seems to hear her laughter. “How long, you insolent Fox? How many times will you resist me?”
He recalls it now, in the night silence in the jail. The sobbing señorita Escalante was taken away long ago, the sad and compassionate padre Benitez also went away, along with Felipe, clenching his fists in a vain anger, and the shaken, despairing don Alejandro. Now the silence is disturbed only by the guards’ callings. The garrison is vigilant, because the alcalde cannot allow the finally caught opponent to be freed. Ignacio de Soto himself bustles in his quarters, prepares for the journey, to his dreamt comeback from his banishment. Through the small window in his cell, Zorro can see the night sky and the stars moving in it as the hours pass by. He also knows, that if he stands up and comes to the bars, he will see the gallows silvered by the moonlight.
The death has kissed Zorro eight times and eight times he has managed to step back, before he has lost himself. But now he knows, that in the noon of the coming day he will meet her again. He knows that she is waiting for him, cold and calm, gray like a dust, silver like the moon shine, with eyes like polished steel. And looking from the window at the gallows, he wonders how this last, ninth kiss is going to taste.
The garrison’s gate opens, before the church’s bell rings at the noon. The squad of soldiers walks slowly, their musket barrels holding back the crowded, shouting people. Between them Zorro walks surely, seemingly indifferent to the shouts, his hands tied behind his back, and weapons pointed at him. For him, the time for anger, opposition or despair had passed. He left them behind, in the cell. Now he has to play his role one more time, before everything ends.
From the gallows’ height Ignacio de Soto looks at the approaching people. At this moment he feels only pure satisfaction. It was worth it to make an effort, to plan, to collect information, just for this one day. And when the unfortunate Gilberto Risendo gave him the last clue, he could attack accurately and surely. Risendo was buried, but for de Soto came the time of his final effort. His enemy, Zorro, Diego de la Vega, is walking right now for his inevitable death.
In front of the gallows’ stairs señorita Victoria Escalante crosses in front of the soldiers. The woman doesn’t allow them to take her away, she wants to go to the convict. Only that takes Zorro from his listlessness.
“Ignacio!” he calls audibly. “If you could be so kind and let her come here!”
They cross gazes for a moment, the alcalde and the outlaw, and finally de Soto gives in. Victoria runs into the middle of the escort and embraces Zorro. Her face is pale and tired after a sleepless night, her eyes are puffy and red from crying, but for him she has never looked so beautiful, and her kiss has more passion, than ever. When she takes her lips from his, Zorro has a feeling that he is losing something very important.
“Don’t look at it, querida,” he says quietly. “Remember, don’t look.”
Victoria nods, unable to spit out even a word. Zorro passes her and reaches the gallows’ stairs. Whitened from sun, dried planks squeak under his shoes and he thinks he knows, what he has just lost. Every step takes him away from Victoria, every step takes him closer to her gray rival. At the end de Soto, padre Benitez and a visibly frightened Mendoza are waiting for him. Victoria stands with don Alejandro by the stairs. The caballero embraces her, Felipe grabs her hand, as if both of them want to give her even the slightest support. All around, people stop shouting and protesting, they stand still, looking at the last act of this drama.
There are no official speeches or announcements of the death sentence. Everyone knows, who is going to die, for what reason and on whose command. Padre Benitez still whispers something to himself, and de Soto smiles happily.
“Hello, Diego,” he says. “What a beautiful day we have.”
“Hello, Ignacio,” replies Zorro. “Beautiful day for a journey.”
“For execution also. Sergeant, do your duty!”
The hands of sergeant Mendoza tremble visibly, when he takes the halter. He is frightened by this forced task and the responsibility of it.
“I… I don’t…” he stammers.
“Courage, sergeant,” Zorro smiles to him to lift his spirits. “Courage. Do, what you should.”
There is no sound of fear or doubt in Zorro’s voice and it seems to calm Mendoza down. He puts the rope on his neck and starts manipulating and checking something at the knot.
De Soto catches these exertions by the corner of an eye and winces. Time passes, soon it will be noon. His luggage lays in the stagecoach, the carriage is ready for journey, and only the execution of the famous Zorro stops the driver and other passengers from leaving at once.
“Hurry, sergeant,” de Soto says sharply. Mendoza starts to shiver again.
“Calm down, sergeant, just calm down,” interrupts Zorro. “Leave him, Ignacio, let him finish. It is my neck, and I’m not in a hurry.”
The alcalde doesn’t want another malicious exchange with his opponent. He turns back to look at the crowd once more. He has to make sure he has witnesses of his triumph, to see their fear and despair, because Zorro doesn’t lose his good humor even with a rope on his neck.
“Any last memorable words, Diego?” he throws his question in the air, meant to be rhetorical, and turns around, surprised, when he hears short, unhappy laughter, accompanied by a groan of astonishment.
“What do you want, Ignacio? A speech?” asks Zorro mockingly.
“No, rather remorse. Or begging.”
“You won’t hear that from me,” Zorro answers him with suddenly sharp voice. “Remember,” he says aloud and assured. “Remember. Not this day and what will come, but all this, what was before.”
De Soto looks over his shoulder and sees that the people rise their heads, straighten proudly, many of them clench their fists angrily. Zorro looks at him with a challenge and the alcalde understands, that that outlaw wants to change his own death into a victory.
Zorro stands unhesitatingly, smiling and calm despite the rope around his neck. He knows that de Soto has just failed. They both will be gone soon, he and the alcalde, each of them to his own fate, but the people will remember the laughter and this last of Zorro’s challenges, not his death or de Soto’s triumph. He is sure that this last role was played well up to the end. He achieved what he wanted. Now he feels only sadness, that it all ended in this way, and peace, that he has done everything he could. He reconciled with the fact, that the end of this history wasn’t his. He sees there, down, his father, Victoria and Felipe. The rest of the people turn into multicolored mass. He doesn’t see the gray lady, though he knows she’s there. Or maybe he doesn’t see her, because she stands right next to him, on the very same planks.
De Soto draws a handkerchief. He usually uses it as a sign to release the trapdoor. At this sight sergeant Mendoza takes some smelly, black hood. De Soto nods and lets him put it on the convict’s head. Let Diego de la Vega die in this stinking darkness, and the alcalde won’t be looking at his last, mocking smile.
Despite all his determination to stay calm up to the end, Zorro suddenly keeps his breath, when Mendoza puts the hood on his face.
And when the emptiness opens under his feet and he stars falling into the darkness and nothingness, Diego de la Vega, Zorro, feels this last, ninth kiss. It’s sweet and tastes like metal at the same time.
When de Soto’s handkerchief falls down and the trapdoor opens with crash, a groan of horror goes through the crowd. For a moment, that’s like eternity, Zorro shakes in the noose. Finally, he ceases moving and hangs limply. The church’s bell starts ringing the noon.
Ignacio de Soto winces with disgust seeing what’s happening with the convict, and he winces even more at the sight of the sergeant’s horror. Clumsy Mendoza, he wanted to spare his friend pain, but lengthened his agony. The alcalde avoids the hole and passes by padre Benitez, who feverishly murmurs a pray and binds a breviary in his trembling hands. He comes to the barrier. There, down, by the stairs, don Alejandro embraces Victoria Escalante and Felipe. The woman and the boy cuddle to him, de Soto sees that the señorita trembles from sobbing. The old caballero keeps his head high, proud, but he has closed eyes. Tears run down his face and his lips move, probably in a pray. Around these three some people kneel, some still stand frozen, staring at the gallows, many of them cry openly.
This sight is pure satisfaction for de Soto, and this makes him merciful, in his own mind. He should see that the body will be buried in an unmarked grave, but this is his moment of triumph, and the awareness of the waiting stagecoach makes him let it go. He has planned to leave this damn pueblo and he is not going to give up. Let the old de la Vega bury his crazy son, let them even make a memorial for this “pueblo defender”. Let someone else worry about this rebellious Los Angeles. It is no longer his concern, the time has come for him to leave. Zorro is definitely dead, his body doesn’t even sway on the rope anymore. Monterey and the report for the governor won’t keep de Soto long. The ship is waiting, and the way back to Madrid is wide open.
So Ignacio de Soto runs down the stairs and hurries to the stagecoach. The coachman slams the door behind him and the alcalde goes away, not looking back at Zorro’s body on the gallows, despaired people or the pueblo itself.
X X X
When the dust after the coach’s departure falls down and it’s clear that de Soto has definitely left Los Angeles, sergeant Mendoza wakes from the numbness of looking at his hung friend. He orders the soldiers to lower their muskets and he waves towards don Alejandro. Along with the elder caballero doctor Hernandez runs up to the gallows, aware of his duty to confirm the convict’s death. Together, they cut down Zorro’s body. Don Alejandro keeps his son in half sitting position and removes the hood. The sergeant cuts the ropes on his hands. The doctor leaning over them notices with astonishment that Zorro has a calm face and closed eyes, as if he was only sleeping.
Sergeant Mendoza stares at the doctor with fear and some desperate hope, but before Doctor Hernandez has a chance to do anything, don Alejandro reaches his hand to the loop on Zorro’s neck and to the doctor’s astonishment, sighs in relief. He can’t understand his reaction. But after that he sees that the rope the caballero removes, wasn’t tightened up but locked to something hidden under Zorro’s shirt. Hernandez reaches to the convict’s hand in a routine gesture and opens his mouth, shocked. Zorro’s sleep is not just an imagination, the doctor feels a weak, but steady pulse. Though it seems incredible, Zorro still lives.
“Ho.. How is…” stutters Doctor Hernandez.
This question and the doctor’s expression is enough. Padre Benitez sighs loudly ‘Gracias a Dios’, and Mendoza gasps in relief. Don Alejandro embraces tightly his son. Without a word, smiling though the tears, the elder caballero unbuttons Zorro’s shirt and shows the doctor wide belts hidden under it, that a buckle ties with the knot.
Zorro still seems to be sleeping in an unnatural deep sleep, motionless and indifferent to the touch and voices of the people surrounding him. His head sinks on his father’s arm, the breath is disturbingly weak.
“Smelling salts, doctor, quickly,” says the caballero, supporting his son.
In the square people mingle with the soldiers. Everyone is waiting in a tense silence. It is clear that something unexpected has happened. Victoria stands by the stairs, still pale and silent, with face in tears, staring at the people leaning over Zorro. Felipe embraces her waist, partly keeping her from running up the stairs, partly supporting her.
When the doctor opens a bottle with salts, Zorro finally starts waking, moaning weakly and clumsily reaching hand to his head. Victoria sway from relief and leans over Felipe, when she sees that her beloved gives some signs that he’s alive. The crowd bustles with enthusiasm. The people don’t know yet, what had happened, but they understand that somehow their defender came back and lives. So they laugh, cheer, embrace along with the soldiers. Someone starts playing, behind the crowd the children dance happily. On the gallows, padre Benitez wipes his tears, sergeant Mendoza cries openly in joy and relief that he has managed to do his task and saved his friend. Don Alejandro still embraces and rocks his half-conscious son.
Zorro feels bad. His head hurts and he is dizzy, but he realizes that this risky plan has succeeded. Theatrical trick, a gear hidden under the shirt that Felipe had made and gave to him through the sergeant at dawn, a gear to which Mendoza stuck the rope, worked well. It kept his body safe, preventing the loop from tightening. A deep sleep caused by the hood soaked with ether, made him limp and look dead. Now, with his father’s and friends’ help, Zorro stands up with effort and goes down the gallows’ steps. He’s still dizzy and nauseous, and the people’s shouts and cheers stun him, but when he goes down the stairs, he thinks he sees the gray silhouette one more time, and through the noise he seems to hear the words: “That was brave, you insolent fox. So you won. Be happy with your life. We will see each other again. Sometime.”
By the gallows Zorro falls in Victoria’s arms. The woman embraces him tightly, laughing and crying at the same time. Her kiss is salty from tears. But for Diego de la Vega, Zorro, it tastes like a kiss from life itself.
Part four – one more kiss
A/NIt’s not the end of the story, there’s one more chapter.
A/N: I know that the previous parts made a whole story, but what IcyWaters once wrote was still in my mind:” The solace is that one day, sooner or later, she ultimately will. There is no escaping the Gray Lady forever”. And so I wrote that part.
Thanks to Arianka for her translation and patience. And to Amiga, who made me return to this story.
X X X
When the Grey Lady comes again, Diego de la Vega rises to welcome her. The years that passed changed his dark hair into silver, washed some of color from his eyes and took the strength from his muscles, but he is still a caballero and he knows it’s impolite to greet the lady sitting. So though he had only a can instead of a sword, he rises. He doesn’t know who is that person hurrying through his garden, but he will greet her.
When she comes closer, he recognizes her. There are no canyon rocks, no mine passages nor abrupt roofs this time, there are no flying bullets nor crackling flames. Only the heat of the sun is as big as it was that day, when they saw each other last time, among the crowd surrounding the gallows.
But now it’s the garden around the hacienda, hundreds of flowers shining in the sun and the air vibrating in the heat. And among this all stands a woman in a grey dress and Diego looks at her face for the first time. She is beautiful and calm, like he imagined her years ago, the Grey Lady’s eyes are still like a sky reflecting in the steel.
When the lady carefully touches his cheek, Diego de la Vega, Zorro, smiles audaciously one more time and pulls her closer to him. He hushes her surprised exclamation with a kiss and he feels that she returns this kiss after a moment of astonishment.
It’s both sweet and salt, burning and delicate, brings memories of fight and peace, cheerfulness and grief. Everything he experienced in his life closes in this one touch of lips. The kiss stuns him to dizziness and for the first time Zorro doesn’t fight it. There is no longer a sunny afternoon in the garden, no sand under his toes nor pain in old wounds and tiredness of the senility. There is only this woman in his arms and this kiss, a gift given and returned.
When the Grey Lady steps back, her eyes are wide open and darkened, and her pale cheeks colored by the blush.
“It was worth to wait for you to give me this kiss freely, Fox,” she whispers. And then she says louder, with a smile as mocking as Zorro’s. “But, my insolent Fox, you will have to explain yourself!”
She steps back, and Diego sees a woman standing behind her. Victoria de la Vega wears a colorful dress and a frilly shirt, her hair are black again, not silver, and her dark eyes seem to hurl thunderbolts. Judging by her expression, she’s not pleased with her husband’s behavior.
Toronado’s neigh and a marital quarrel effectively howl down the laugh of the Grey Lady.