A/N: In the Polish canon of school reading there is the book “The Knights of the Cross” by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. There is a Slavic medieval custom described there that I decided to “borrow” and adapt to California conditions.
Anticipating the question — no, the Church did not have such customs. I hope that the solution to the hanging problem will appeal to those who did not have to read about the adventures of Zbyszko from Bogdaniec and Danusia in lessons. If you want to read the original story try the Gutenberg project: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9473 (this motive is in chapter 8).
A/N As always, many thanks for KariTBB and Iga for all corrections and suggestions in beta reading. 🙂
Chapter 1 Terrible Mistake
Nobody expected this turn of events this morning, least of all the man who was now sitting on a cot in prison.
After disarming the local soldiers and a short duel with de Soto, the renegade mounted his horse, found Victoria near the tavern and saluted her with a charming smile. However, he made a serious mistake that day. He didn’t notice the sniper who was lurking on the cuartel roof.
He was about to leave through the parting and cheering crowd, when a shot suddenly fired. There was a sudden silence and everyone held their breath. And the renegade fell from the horse directly into the dust on the plaza.
The alcalde broke the silence. “Finally you are mine. I will return to Madrid in glory.”
He looked at the lancers who had already managed to get up after meeting Zorro’s fist earlier. “Lancers, get him to jail! Now!”
The crowd was so surprised that they didn’t even try to stop the soldiers from swarming the place where an upset Tornado was kicking and Zorro lay still.
The renegade struggled to his feet, only to find a number of muskets aimed at him and the slightly uncertain faces of the lancers.
He knew he had lost this time. He was squeezing his thigh, but blood was slowly dripping onto the sand. If he wasn’t injured, he could try to escape. But with stabbing leg pain, he had no chance of climbing the saddle.
With feigned arrogance and confidence, he turned to the soldiers. “It looks like today is your lucky day, amigos.”
The lancers escorted him to his cell. When the jail was empty except for him, Zorro took out a knife hidden in his boot and cut his trousers around the wound. Removing the bullet from the injury was never his favourite activity, but he knew it was a necessity. He had nothing to clean the wound, but he ripped off a piece of cape and began bandaging his leg when he heard raised voices from Alcade’s office.
“What’s the point of treating a wounded bandit who will be hanged tomorrow? You can write the death certificate instead of this.” This was surely de Soto. This man had no mercy.
“Firstly, I took the Hippocratic oath that I would care for the health of every human being, regardless of his state, social class or on which side of the law he is. Secondly, I am the only doctor within three days journey and in the future, I may be indisposed to treat your soldiers. So I demand … “. This was Dr Hernandez, one of the few men who could threaten de Soto in this way.
“All right, I get it. You can go, but Mendoza will accompany you, just in case of an escape attempt.”
The jail door opened and Dr. Hernandez and Mendoza entered. The sergeant opened the cell door and let the doctor inside, but he himself remained in front of the prison bars to give the patient some privacy.
Dr. Hernandez knelt down, untied the cloth around the thigh and inspected the injured leg. “You did a good job, son, I supposeit wasn’t your first time, am I right?”
Zorro only nodded and hissed a little when the physician poured some alcohol on the wound, stitched it and dressed his leg with a clean bandage. Dr. Hernandez took his time while tending to Zorro, and asked in a low voice, “Do you have an idea how to escape? With this leg, you won’t be able to climb on the roof or run. I can add a sleeping substance to the garrison dinner, but you probably know that dosage depends on weight and I can’t predict the exact effects.”
Zorro answered him in an equally low voice. “No, Doctor. If I run away and the soldiers fall asleep, you will be suspected of complicity in the affair and the alcalde will definitely hang you, despite the need for your services. I have no right to ask you to do it.”
He hung his head and added in a resigned voice, “When I put on the mask, I always knew that every day could be my last. I only regret that I’ve never had a chance to live a normal life with Victoria. If you want to do something for me, Doctor, please look after her and my family after my death. They don’t know anything. ”
Dr. Hernandez looked at him with sympathy, he knew that only a miracle could save the hero this time. He leaned closer and whispered into his ear, “For all you have done for the pueblo’s people over all these years, that is the least I can promise you, Diego.”
The face in the black mask jerked up and the renegade looked at him suspiciously at first. But a moment later his head dropped again. “Thank you.”
That was all. He plunged into unhappy thoughts and did not notice the departure of the doctor.
He knew his luck had ended this time. Would his father be very disappointed when alcalde de Soto took off his mask? Not only had Don Alejandro considered him a coward for years, but now he would add to his burden the ending of the family line. Although, the old Don would always be able to adopt Felipe. But would his father forgive him?
What about Victoria? It didn’t matter now whether she loved only a legend or the real man, she would be devastated. But would she be able to forgive him or would she reject him on the steps of the gallows? Would the last thing he saw be disgust in her eyes?
Nobody else came all afternoon, evening and night. Neither Victoria, nor the sergeant with dinner or supper, nor even de Soto beaming with triumph. Zorro was left alone with thoughts black like his clothes. This was personal torture from the dear alcalde of the pueblo Los Angeles.
Chapter 2 There Is Still Hope
Nobody visited Zorro in prison, which didn’t mean that many didn’t try. Victoria, Don Alejandro and other significant caballeros were just the beginning of the list. Unfortunately, only Dr. Hernandez had sufficient arguments to achieve as much.
Tear-stained and helpless, Victoria went to the church where she knelt before the altar and prayed fervently for the life of her beloved. This was how Padre Benitez found her. He knelt next to her, crossed himself and also said a short prayer. Then he turned to the young woman and put a hand on her shoulder.
“My dear child, are you crying because they caught Zorro?” he asked gently.
Victoria nodded and sobbed. “Si, Padre. Tomorrow the alcalde will hang him, and I don’t know how to prevent it. If he dies, I will also die. I can’t live without the hope that one day we could be together.”
“So, do you love him?” the priest asked.
“With all my heart. I will do everything to rescue him, but I don’t know how.” Her pleading eyes looked helplessly at the padre.
He considered something for a moment, then asked her, “My child, I predicted a long time ago that one day luck would leave Zorro, and he would be captured. I have an idea how to save him.”
Victoria’s eyes glowed with hope. She grabbed his hand and kissed it. “Tell me Padre, what should I do?”
“It will require three Christian virtues from you: faith, hope and love. Especially the latter, because his life will depend on your decision after he is unmasked,” he replied very seriously.
The tavern owner nodded silently and waited, a little impatient, for clarification.
“When Zorro is led to the gallows, you must perform a ritual and say specific words out loud. As a result, the alcalde will lose power over him. But I have to warn you. You will have to marry him, whoever he is. If you oppose the marriage in any way, Zorro will die and I won’t be able to do anything. Are you ready for this?”
“Padre, I love him, whoever he is and I will happily marry him.”
The priest looked dubious. “And if he’s ugly or you don’t like him without a mask? You don’t know him too well as a private person.”
Victoria sighed. “Even if I can’t love him without the mask, I will gladly sacrifice my further to save him.”
“In that case, come with me, I will explain everything more specifically to you in the sacristy.”
Chapter 3 Hanging and Church Law
In the morning, a huge crowd gathered in the plaza. Everyone wanted to pay tribute to the defender of the pueblo. Many señoritas cried even if they never had a chance with the handsome bandit.
Victoria stood with the padre near the gallows, clutching a white towel in her hand. She prayed long into the night until sleep fell over her. She was determined to save her lover, whoever he was.
Exactly at 10 o’clock, the drums began to play and the garrison gate swung open. Armed soldiers led the bound and clearly limping Zorro towards the place of his execution. There was a white bandage on his thigh that stood out against the black outfit. Mendoza was also noticeably pale and showed fear that was not visible on the face of the condemned man.
They climbed the few steps onto the structure, and Zorro stared into the distance. He promised himself that he would die with dignity, and even one look into Victoria’s loving eyes could break that promise. He also did not want to see the disappointment of his father and his beloved.
The proud alcalde started a speech that no one was listening to. Everyone’s heart was with the masked fox. Many owed him their life, health, return of stolen goods or rescinding of unfair taxes. But no one had the courage to oppose the execution. Only don Alejandro had had something to say about it, but fortunately Felipe had dissuaded him from meddling. The lad knew that when the mask came off, the protests of the older caballero could also lead him to the gallows.
Felipe also did not sleep that night but prayed. He could see the leg wound and realized how serious it was. He walked nervously around the cave, but didn’t come up with any idea to help Zorro escape. So now he stood with tears in his eyes, which he was not ashamed of.
When de Soto finally finished speaking, Victoria felt a slight push against her back. Now was the time for action.
“What’s now?” the alcalde angrily asked.
“Can I say goodbye to him?” Her pleading eyes melted his hard heart a little.
“Make it quick. We don’t have all day.” After all he had his victory, so he could be generous at last.
Victoria quickly climbed the stairs and stood near Zorro. He turned to her tensely. If anyone, including him, was expecting a romantic kiss that would end in the imminent death of the renegade, they would be sorely disappointed.
The Senorita threw a white towel over his head so that it was completely covered. Then she recited in a loud voice, “Is est mei. Volo ducere convertam eum eo quod iustus in hominibus.” [*latin “He is mine. I want to marry him and turn him into a righteous man.”]
There was absolute silence in the plaza. Nobody expected this and most did not even know what Victoria said. But Zorro did. He tensed even more and protested, “No, you can’t do this. I can bear losing my own life, but not yours.” He felt her warm hands on his head, holding the white cloth in place. He was horrified by her intervention and did not understand her.
He heard the alcalde’s angry voice. “What is the meaning of this stupidity?!”
At this point Padre Benitez intervened. “There is a Church law that when an unmarried girl throws a white cloth on a condemned man’s head and says the formula she just said, she saves him from death. The condition is that she must marry him immediately and without hesitation. The white colour symbolizes his conversion to the path of righteousness, where she promises to guide him. From the moment of marriage he becomes a new man with a clean account.”
Ignacio de Soto listened curiously at first, but quickly became angry. “What a bullshit idea! Go away, stupid tavern wrench, you just lost your last chance for a kiss from your lover. Sergeant, put the noose on him.”
The usually calm padre raised his voice. “By the power bestowed upon me by the Church, I may excommunicate you if you refuse this custom. Free the prisoner so that I may marry him to Victoria.”
The alcalde knew when he was defeated. He couldn’t argue. But he still could outsmart them.
“You said that she must marry him immediately and without hesitation. If she knows his identity, I can sentence her to death for complicity and you will not stop me by any law.”
Zorro cut in on the conversation. “Victoria doesn’t know who I am. I swear by honour.”
Ignacio stroked his goatee. “We will see, we will see.”
Mendoza quickly cut the ties on the condemned man’s hands, and Victoria revealed his masked face from under the white fabric. She was pleased with the successful trick and the affection she felt for Zorro. However, her hero did not share her enthusiasm. He quietly whispered, “What have you done? You don’t love me, the real me, and if de Soto sees even a shadow of hesitation, we’ll both die.”
Victoria replied with the determination, “He will not and I love you, all of you.”
The alcalde and the troops started walking towards the church. Among them was Zorro, who was leaning on his fiancée and Mendoza. The crowd followed.
During this walk, the masked bandit addressed a request to a soldier. “Sergeant … Jaime, I always considered you a friend. Will you do me the honor of serving as my best man?”
Contrary to common practice, Zorro and Victoria approached the altar together, with the help of the sergeant. The alcalde was seated on the first bench and only waited for the señorita to refuse to marry her lover after seeing his face for the first time. Or maybe she already knew it? Then he would be able to hang them both.
The padre made the necessary admission at record speed and completely skipped the sermon.
Zorro looked sadly at his beloved. After Victoria rejected him, he would return to the gallows. He had hoped he would leave the earthly void with the memory of her sweet mouth, not the disappointment in her eyes. Apparently, he did not deserve such a grace.
The tavern owner, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. She knew she was being watched and was determined to show her surprise and kiss the man behind the mask as soon as it came off. Zorro had insisted so many times that she did not love him that she was afraid it might be the truth. But she knew that was the only option to save his life.
The time for vows and unmasking finally came.
All citizens held their breath. Zorro slowly reached for the knot behind his head and the black fabric fell to the floor. He heard “Madre de Dios!” from Mendoza’s direction, “This is impossible!” from his family’s pew and an angry “This fop?” from the front pew. People started whispering, but he couldn’t hear them any more. All his attention was focused on his beloved. He searched her eyes, but he couldn’t read anything in them.
Victoria looked at her friend’s face as if in a trance. She forgot her resolve, the alcalde and the death threat. Young de la Vega was the last person she had suspected of being Zorro, meanwhile …
“You?” she asked. “How?”
But at this point, it all fell into place. The woman he loved and who did not love him back; his soothing, constant presence in her daily life; his uncertainty about her feelings; his disinterest in pueblo matters and aversion to violence; his sleeping until noon. Two faces: her lover and her best friend, merged into one.
She threw her arms around his neck and captured his lips in a passionate kiss, ignoring the people around them and common decency.
The parishioners cheered loudly, and de Soto trembled with anger. Of all people, it had to be irritating and spineless de la Vega! If he was that inn whore, he would slap the man, not kiss him! However, the alcalde had to concede that he had lost. She was definitely surprised and, judging from the kiss, she would now marry him. Disgusted, he marched out of the Lord’s house and headed for his apartment and for the liquor cabinet. He needed one, a strong one.
After a while, the padre managed to silence the crowd and everyone sat down. All except the petrified don Alejandro, who was grinning broadly and crying at the same time. The kiss was still going on, so the padre cleared his throat significantly.
“Son, kissing time will be later. Can we continue?”
Diego didn’t release Victoria from his arms when they repeated the words of the oath. He looked at her, happy that his worst nightmare had not come true after all. She really loved him!
They had no rings so the padre promised to bless the wedding bands later in the evening mass.
Following their announcement as husband and wife, the caballero did not wait for permission to kiss his bride, which sparked another wave of applause and cheers.
Alejandro was the first to congratulate them. “I’m so proud of you, mi hijo.” They both knew they had a long conversation ahead of them, but that could wait till tomorrow. The second in line was of course the excited Felipe, who had gone through no less emotional carousel than his mentor in the last hour.
The party lasted until dawn. Diego received many thanks and good wishes. What surprised him was that he was also asked by every single soldier from the cuartel if he would give some fencing or tracking lessons. Nobody remembered the bitter alcalde who had long since passed out over an empty bottle of whiskey.
“And I was there among the guests, and there drank wine and mead;
And what I saw and heard I wrote, that all of you might read”
[** This is quote from other Polish classical writer, Adam Mickiewicz, from the book “Mr Tadeusz”, which You can find also in Gutenberg project http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28240 ]
PS. What happened to de Soto? As soon as he sobered up, he returned to Spain and never mentioned his years in the New World.