Ashes

(was "Stranger in the night")

Rated T.

Summary: NWZ: Zorro is chasing some bandits ten miles out of the pueblo as he falls victim to an ambush. Badly injured there seems to be little hope for him to survive.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything (unfortunately). This is written for the enjoyment of fellow Zorro fans and not intended to infringe any copyrights. However, I do claim original characters as my own as well as the plot of the story following. This work of fiction is not to be printed or published elsewhere without my written consent.

Author's note: Well, this is my first Zorro fanfic. Just to let you know. Unfortunately English is not my first language and I haven't written anything in years (at least not in English) so I'm not feeling as confident about posting this as I might have ten years ago. I just had this idea spooking around in my head for a while now and I felt the overwhelming urge to write it down.

Please do read and hopefully enjoy my little story. If you do so, make my day just a little brighter and leave me a review. It's the only payment I get (and dare I say expect) for this and they do mean a lot more to me than stupid money ever could. After all money is what I go to work for everyday. ;-) So if you care to do this humble writer a little favor, tell her what you think of the little tale you're about to read.

Chapter 1

Early in December winter had brought an unusual cold to the Pueblo de Los Angeles and its people and one could see the inhabitants of the small pueblo wearing some extra ponchos to protect themselves from the icy wind that had come along.

A good ten miles outside of town the winds were blowing around the weather worn wooden planks of a small farmhouse. A white mare outside in the corral had retreated to the small adjacent barn for some shelter and was peacefully munching on some hay. The darkness of night had begun to lay its velvet blanket over the open plains of Alta California and brought with it the promise of peace to the rough land.

Ana stood in the doorway and watched the sun disappear behind the small hills surrounding her property. She inhaled the cold air deeply into her lungs and let her thoughts wander. Closing her eyes to the world around her, she listened to it instead and heard nothing but an occasional bird singing in a distant bush and the soft noises her horse made in the corral. With a sigh she opened her eyes, drew her shawl even tighter around her shoulders and walked the short distance to the corral's fence. When she gave a whistle the ears of the white mare stood in attention and the beautiful horse made its way towards its owner.

"Hey there, old girl", Ana smiled at the mare and softly stroked the horse's nose. "I'm sorry we didn't go for a ride today. I know I promised, but I really needed to chop some firewood." The horse nuzzled Ana gently as if trying to tell her, that it was alright. "Besides I was running low on some of my herbs and I needed to gather them, before there aren't any left. You know how difficult it is to find them out here anyway. By now Pablo would probably have scolded me anyway for being so careless with his supplies." The mare nodded her head as if in agreement. "Quite right you are, Águila. You miss him just as much as I do, don't you?" It wasn't really a question. "You will be alright. I have to go back inside. And tomorrow, I promise, we will go for that ride." Ana kissed the soft nose of Águila and turned to go back inside when the sounds of muskets disturbed the silence of night. Startled she turned around looking in the direction from where the shooting could be heard. Águila behind her gave a frightened whinny and galloped back into the safety of the barn. Ana stood frozen to the spot. In the distance she could hear the sounds of panicked horses and even more gunfire now accompanied by the clashing of steel that rung through the night with the terrifying certainty that one or more men were fighting for their lives. Quite soon the sounds of muskets being fired ceased and the only thing she could make out was the distant sound of swordplay. And then very suddenly it all came to an end. The silence was deafening after all the commotion and Ana was trying to hear something – anything. It was just impossible for all sound to disappear right after there had so obviously been a fight. But all she could make out was the sounds of Águila's hooves on the dirt floor who was dancing around nervously. With one hand she motioned her horse to be quiet as she tried to make out any sound in the distance.

After a little while she heard men shouting at each other but she couldn't make out what was being said. And eventually all sounds faded along with the distant thunder of many hooves galloping away. Silence once again returned to the plains just outside the Pueblo de Los Angeles as though nothing had ever happened.

"Whatever that was, it's over now", Ana mumbled and started to go back inside when Águila came out of her shelter whinnying nervously. Her gaze was fixed on something in the distance and Ana followed it. Towards them came a black shadow running at breathtaking speed, huge and frightening. While Águila became more nervous by the second, Ana just stood there next to the fence her dark eyes fixed on the quickly approaching horse. It came to a halt right in front of her, but reared on its hind legs in panic and almost hit the woman in front of it when it came down again. Immediately Ana grabbed the bridles talking to the panicked horse in a calming fashion. "Shh, boy. Quiet. It's over." But the huge stallion wouldn't calm, panic still evident in his black eyes. "It's alright. I will help you. But I can't do that if you don't clam down just a bit. Please." She stared into the stallions eyes as if trying to hypnotize the animal when all she was doing was trying to calm him. Eventually the stallion responded to her soft whispering and touches and gave a snort. "See, there's a good boy", Ana smiled and patted the horse's neck. "You look quite familiar", she muttered as she noticed the fancy bridles and saddle. A whip hung loosely from the saddle horn and it began to dawn on her whose horse had just nearly trampled her to death. "Your master is in trouble, isn't he." Again, it was not a question. The black stallion nodded his head and tried to get himself out of her hold on his bridles. Ana let go of him and gave a small whistle that caused Águila to come further towards her. Fear was still evident in the mare's eyes but she trusted her human unconditionally and was ready to take the risk of coming closer to the impressive stallion. Ana opened the gate to the corral and mounted Águila's bare back. Deep inside her she knew that now was not the time to worry about saddles and bridles. "Lead the way." She nodded towards the other horse which immediately took off. Ana urged Águila into a gallop and followed the stallion into the night.

The ride was short and ended quite abruptly when the stallion came to a halt right next to a shadowy figure on the ground. Ana guided her horse toward them and dismounted. She immediately recognized the still form of a man, dressed all in black, lying awkwardly bent over a huge rock. Getting to her knees she felt for a pulse on his throat and let out a sigh of relief when she felt a weak throbbing against her fingertips. However, there wasn't much she could do out in the open plains in the dark of night. She got up from her kneeling position and went towards the stallion, looking the huge animal directly in the eye.

"I will need your help for this, Toronado", she said. "Your master is severely injured and I can't do anything for him out here. We need to get him back to my house. Will you help me with that?" Some of the nervousness that had taken hold of the large stallion ebbed away at her words as he was obviously relieved that he had found his master help. "Good." Ana took again hold of Toronado's bridles and guided him down onto his knees. He obeyed without hesitation as he knelt down right next to the unconscious man. "There we go. Now this won't be easy", Ana sighed as she attempted to move the wounded man from the rock ever so carefully. She knew there was a possibility that his back was hurt and that the man preferably shouldn't be moved at all but she couldn't just leave him out there in the cold where death would sooner or later claim him. This would at least give him a chance to survive. So she knelt down behind him, slipped her arms underneath his armpits and tried to drag him carefully the short distance to the kneeling Toronado. Zorro was definitely heavier than he looked. Grunting from the effort she managed to place him over Toronado's back and held on to him as she commanded the stallion to stand up. Zorro nearly fell but with effort she managed to keep him on the saddle. "We've got to do this very slowly. So, don't gallop off, do you hear me!" Panting she swung herself over Águila's back and reached for Toronado's reigns, leading him to stand right next her. The sudden closeness to the much taller stallion made her own mare nervous but she couldn't afford to recognize that just now. "Slowly", Ana said again before they started their way back to her house. As if both horses had understood what she wanted from them they trotted home in perfect harmony.