Chapter

Twenty Seven

 

After stuffing the majority of their belongings into one large sack and paying Ewan generously both with coin and items that they chose not to take with them, Rosemary and Ariana hid behind a copse of trees several yards from the water. La Rochelle was no tropical isle with a white, sandy beach; nay, the ocean met with land at an abrupt embankment, and only a thick line of trees several yards from the rocky coast separated the water from the town itself. Within this diminutive forest, Ariana stood behind a wide trunk a few feet to Rosemary’s left and clutched a large stone that they had found upon the coast, waiting silently for Rosemary’s signal.

It was now roughly nine or ten of the clock, and most of the sailors were returning to the ship for the night. They were, as a whole, drunk and rowdy, which Ariana hoped would work to her advantage. If her face seemed odd to any of them, mayhaps they would simply attribute it to drink and not think much on’t.

There were but two dinghies left… they would have to act soon. To her right, Rosemary let several groups pass by before nodding silently to Ariana, letting the gypsy know that she had identified a likely quarry. In the group about to pass, one young man straggled behind, absorbed more in the last of his meat pasty than in the rambunctious conversation of his shipmates.

Just as the young man passed, Rosemary hissed loudly, and the youth turned to seek the direction of the voice. Stepping partially out from behind the tree, Rosemary held up a silver coin and let it catch the moonlight. She beckoned urgently to the boy, then ducked back behind the tree. When he hesitated, she poked just her head out from behind the trunk, and again lifted the coin to let it shine in the moonlight before once again retreating behind the tree. Swiftly she cut her eyes towards Ariana – be ready! – and said a quick prayer as the boy approached.

“Do not be afraid,” Rosemary whispered to him. “I have a special job that needs doing, and you appear a likely lad for the sport.”

“Wha’ sort o’ job?” The lad asked the question suspiciously… but he could not keep from staring at the silver coin.

“That depends, art thou brave?”

“Brave enough.”

“Well, then -” Rosemary began, but she did not have to stall further, for by that time Ariana had moved with cat-like silence behind the boy and hit him neatly over the head with the stone. The boy barely had time to look surprised before he simply crumpled at Rosemary’s feet.

Quickly, Rosemary knelt and put a hand to the boy’s throat. Nodding to Ariana as she began to untie his tunic, she said, “He shall no doubt have a headache and a serious loathing of women when he awakens, but for now he shall be no trouble to us. Phoo! Mine apologies, sister, but his shirt smells horrid. Quick, help me get his breeches off!”

The women made short work of disrobing the young man, and bound his hands to his feet with a bit of twine appropriated from Ewan’s boat. The moon was bright, but fortunately the shadows cast o’er the land by the tree branches kept them fairly well hidden, so they dragged the boy a bit deeper into the moon shadows. Whilst Rosemary covered the youth with a few small but lush and leafy branches to protect him from the wind, Ariana swiftly removed her garments, rolling them into a small ball and securing the bundle with her belt, taking care that no edges peeked out that might identify the cloth as a skirt or petticoat.

Standing there naked and shivering in the moonlight as Rosemary swiftly bound Ariana’s bosom with one of the strips of muslin from her torn petticoat, Ariana’s mind wandered back to Cornwall and her months there prior to searching for Rosemary in Portsmouth. She took in a deep breath, summoning the focus and strength she had learned there for the task ahead.

After Rosemary had helped to bind her bosom and tie up her hair, Ariana quickly dressed in the boy’s smelly tunic, breeches, and boots, securing the breeches about her waist with the boy’s thick hempen-rope belt. Though her bosom had been nearly flattened, her hips still flared with lush femininity, but there was naught they could do about that. She tried un-tucking the shirt to let the loose ends hang over her hips and rear, and that seemed to help a bit. Ariana tucked one last strand of hair beneath the boy’s faded blue muffin hat as Rosemary circled her friend slowly, nodding with grim satisfaction.

“’T’will by no means pass close scrutiny, but it is dark now and most of the crew are drunk and sleepy. With G-d’s help, they shall barely give thee more than one glance.”

Rosemary peeked out towards the water.

“There is still one dinghy left, and by my count, only three other crewmen we saw depart still unaccounted-for. We shall wait until they are close, then thou shalt slip to the dinghy and board just ahead of them. Remember to appear ill from some food or drink, so hopefully they shall not ask thine assistance with rowing or the like. Once on board, head towards the spot at which we saw them working whilst we watched on Ewan’s boat. I saw a rope ladder near there, and remember, be sure to have a blanket for me.”

Rapidly, Rosemary removed her own bodice, overskirt, underskirt, shoes, and her beloved burgundy chemise with its long, pointed sleeves, leaving her only in her thin, thigh-length shift. Even in the dark of night, Ariana could see her friend blushing furiously at being so publicly disrobed, for, unlike Ariana, Rosemary would have to come out from behind the trees and walk all the way to the water line whilst barely dressed. But the set of Rosemary’s jaw told her that her friend was determined to put embarrassment aside in service of their plan. Undoing Ariana’s bundle, she wrapped her own clothes carefully around Ariana’s, and re-secured the bundle with the gypsy’s belt.

Voices to their left alerted them that the last group of sailors was approaching the dinghy, so Rosemary quickly stuffed the clothing bundle into the sack which held the remainder of their belongings and handed the lot to Ariana before pulling her into a fierce hug.

“I love thee so much, sister of my heart,” she whispered, as Ariana held her tightly back with her one free arm. “In… in case the water is too cold and I cannot make it…”

“Think not on it,” Ariana whispered fervently. “We shall succeed. We must. I shall see thee in a few hours, when all on board are abed. G-d shall be with us. I know it.”

Ariana crossed herself twice, and Rosemary slowly let her friend go, whispering, “Ah-mayn.”

She looked out from behind the tree trunk and gave Ariana a small nudge. “Quickly, they are not far off!”

Ariana hurried to the dinghy, and even through her fear, Rosemary was amused by how, midway to the shoreline, Ariana seemed to become aware of her feminine gait and subtly changed it so that it was looser in the shoulders but not quite so pendulous in the hips. She saw Ariana double-check that her dagger was tucked securely into the back of her belt, cross herself once more, and carefully step into the dinghy.

Rosemary had just enough time to duck back behind the tree and gather the hem of her white shift tightly about her thighs as the last three sailors passed, but they were so deep in conversation that she need not have worried about being seen. After they had passed, Rosemary again peeked out towards the water, and watched the pirates climb into the dinghy next to Ariana, who had her head in her hands and her shoulders slumped, the very picture of a green youth who had had too much to drink. She saw one of the pirates say something to Ariana, who merely shook her head behind her hands and hunched her shoulders lower. With a laugh, the pirate clapped her heartily on the shoulder, and then turned away from her to take up an oar.

Rosemary sighed in relief – it appeared that the other pirates would not take much interest in Ariana; too intent were they on getting back to the Moira and their own sleeping quarters. Careful not to be seen, she waited until the dinghy was a good length away before, shivering, she slipped further back behind the trees, where she would wait until the moon was high in the heavens before attempting her swim.

 

By the light of the half-moon, Rosemary looked out towards the Moira. It was too dark to see more than the outline of the ship, much less whether all were abed. And she could only pray that Ariana had made it safely aboard, managed to find a place to hide their belongings and, from somewhere, acquire a blanket. Mayhaps the worst had happened, and Ariana, being discovered, was even now chained in some below-decks quarters, and pirates paced the decks waiting to see if any other unwanted stowaways would approach the ship. Mayhaps Pete was already dead and their efforts were in vain.

Nay, must not think of that. Until I know otherwise, I must have hope.

By Rosemary’s calculations, it was nearly two of the morning clock, and in the event that Ariana had not been discovered and that Pete by G-d’s grace still lived, it was now or never. Besides, Ewan, knowing no more than that he had been handsomely paid for merely half the trip he had expected, had already weighed anchor and set off back for London. Her choices were to stay on this coast in only her shift, or take to the water and swim.

But oh, the ship was so very far away.

Closing her eyes and praying one last time for strength, Rosemary took a deep breath and ran swiftly into the shallow water, not allowing herself time to think of how achingly cold the water was as it reached past her calves to her thighs, wet the hem of her shift, and then completely enveloped her as she dove into the deeper water and began to swim.

The water drenched her hair, and as she surfaced she gasped, feeling as though she had plunged into ice. Willing herself to ignore the cold, she moved with even more haste, knowing that the only thing to do was to raise her own body’s temperature with movement and get to the Moira with as much speed as she could muster.

Arm. Arm. Breathe. Keep kicking. Arm. Arm. Breathe.

It was the stroke her father had taught her, kicking all the while with her legs whilst, one at a time, she brought each arm over her head, and with hands shaped like cups, pushed the water behind her. During every right-hand stroke, she would turn her head and breathe.

Do not give up! Arm! Arm! Again!

She paused to catch her breath and looked back at the shore – she had gone about twenty or thirty yards, and already her arms ached and her lungs burned for air.

Forward.

Think not of the distance. Keep thine eyes on the ship!

Arm. Arm.

Breathe. Kick.

Arm. Arm.

Breathe.

Again.

Arm - Oh, G-d! What was that?

Her foot brushed against something living, and instinctively she kicked at it, but rather than give chase, she sensed it swim away from her.

Rosemary stopped to tread water, checking her bearings and wiping the salt from her stinging eyes. She was drifting slightly to the right of the ship, and she corrected her course. Her legs felt heavy with cold and use, her eyes burned, her lungs screamed for rest.

She had always loved the water, but she had played in summer waves, and had then had the light buoyancy of a child. But now even her thin shift seemed to be dragging her down, and the moon cast strange shadows on the waves, making it appear as though leviathans were rearing their heads above water to devour her.

No! No fear! ‘Tis no time for fancy!

 Arm! Arm!

Kick! Breathe!

Cold – she was so cold.

Her mind began to wander – a result of the cold, she suspected. Rosemary struggled to remain focused on her task, simply moving forward one stroke, one kick at a time. She glanced back at the shore to see that she had already swum more than half the way, but a swift look at the Moira made it seem miles upon miles from her reach.

An’ I cannot reach it, what then? I have not the strength to make it back to shore, and no one to meet me there e’en if I could. The Moira is mine only hope.

Rosemary flipped over onto her back and floated for a moment, just to catch her breath and rest her limbs. But her front, now no longer beneath the water but exposed to the air, felt bitten by the icy wind, and she floated for no more than a few moments before submerging herself again. Resting her arms, she simply let them hang as she kicked half-heartedly, her strength flagging.

What demon possessed me to attempt such a deed? She kicked listlessly. I have not swum in years. And to think I could make it to the Moira on mine own. Ah, Rochel, when shalt thou quail before the sin of pride?

She was tired – so very tired, and it seemed bliss to simply stop moving and allow herself to sink into the water. Three times she did so, holding her breath as long as she could each time, but on the fourth time, she found herself sinking even deeper, as though her body had given in to the urge to simply let the waves quietly engulf her.

Nay! I shall not die – not yet!

With a furious lunge, she burst through the surface of the water and again, though she knew not how, began to kick, slowly but determinedly. Nearly senseless, in a fog of repetitive motion, Rosemary once again began to stroke the water with her arms – forward, forward, breathe, forward, kick, kick, do not stop, keep moving, forward, forward, kick -

Suddenly her hand hit something hard and rough, and out of instinct she shoved at it, trying to defend herself. But the sound made upon hitting it was unmistakable: she had hit wood. She looked up and saw the ship’s massive guns pointing out high above her head, and felt her leg scrape sharply against a barnacle as the ship’s pull dragged her legs beneath it. She winced, but the pain had the effect of re-sharpening her senses, and she fought the pull by drawing her knees up tight and bracing her bare feet against the hull.

Weeping with relief, fighting with reserves she did not know she had, she pushed herself crab-like along the side of the ship towards the place where she had arranged to meet Ariana.

Please, G-d, let her be there. Let her have found the rope, or I am lost.

In the darkness, Rosemary pawed at the side of the ship until she felt the rough strands of a rope ladder, hanging well into the water line. Stifling her sobs as best she could, she grasped the lowest rung, and, having exhausted the strength in her legs, had to use her hands to place her foot upon the rung ere she could stand upon it.

With aching slowness, she began to climb, her every muscle quivering as she asked more of her body than she had ever done. She was gasping for air, and when she emerged from the water, the chilly breeze blowing through her drenched shift caused the cloth to stick wetly to her body. Her teeth clacked so hard that she thought she might rattle her head right off of her shoulders. But half-way up, she heard a quiet “hisst!”, and looked up to see Ariana bending over the rail, reaching an arm down to her, though she was still many feet away.

Baruch Hashem, thank Thee, G-d, Rosemary whispered. Ariana was at least still safe, and the joy of that knowledge gave her the strength to climb the last remaining rungs.

As soon as she was within arm’s reach, Ariana grabbed her first by the wrist, then the neck of her shift, then under her arm as Rosemary swung one arm over the rail, then the next. Clinging in a bear hug to Ariana, Rosemary allowed her friend to pull her the rest of the way on board. As soon as she was fully aboard, Ariana set her gently on the ground, for Rosemary had used the last of her strength to climb the ladder and could no longer stand.

Indeed, Ariana glanced briefly at her as she ran to fetch the blanket she’d found, and saw that Rosemary was shaking uncontrollably with muscle fatigue and cold. Quickly stripping Rosemary of her wet shift, Ariana wrapped the large blanket around Rosemary twice, giving her a small corner to hold onto from inside, and lowered her back to the ground. Vigorously, Ariana rubbed Rosemary’s arms, legs, and back through the blanket, hoping to bring warmth back to them and stop their trembling.

Rosemary winced sharply as Ariana reached her left calf, and Ariana peeked beneath the blanket to see a thin but lengthy scrape on Rosemary’s leg from which blood still slowly seeped. As quietly as she could, Ariana crept back to the railing and wrung the excess water from Rosemary’s shift, then lifted the bottom part of the blanket and tied the fabric around the gash in Rosemary’s leg. Ariana grimaced as Rosemary moaned when the sea salt stung the wound, but squeezed her friend’s hand, knowing that at least the pressure should stop the bleeding soon enough.

“We cannot stay here,” Ariana whispered. “Canst thou walk?”

Rosemary nodded slightly, but her will was stronger than her legs, and she found she could not stand on her own.

With quiet encouragement, Ariana helped her to her feet, and, pausing a moment to let Rosemary get her legs under her, put Rosemary’s arm over her shoulders. She helped Rosemary walk one mincing step at a time until they reached a small, unused storage space of some sort which Ariana had discovered and in which she had stowed their belongings. There was barely room for both women to sit up inside, but it would be enough until she had further opportunity to explore.

For now, she gently settled Rosemary on the floor, wrung the excess water from Rosemary’s dark hair with a twist, and ran her fingers through it to loosen any tangles before they became seawater knots. Then she drew a second blanket from behind a box, and, putting half behind Rosemary and half behind herself, wrapped the two front ends around them both and huddled as close as she could.

Rosemary was already half asleep, but looked up blearily at Ariana long enough to ask, “Art thou all right?”

“Shhh. I am well. Rest thee, my friend. Rest.”

Before she had even finished her sentence, she felt Rosemary’s body sag into the slumber of the truly exhausted. Tucking Rosemary’s dark head beneath her chin, Ariana snuggled close, and drifted off into her own well-deserved sleep.