(Another) Great Escape


It wasn't the shot or the shove that scared me. I'd been prepared for both. What I hadn't been ready for was the impact of the harbor and the jerk of my breath as it fled me. In its place was water and the horrifying realization that my body was mistaking it for air. My lungs seared, but I couldn't stop inhaling.

I am not a bad swimmer. I am not a bad swimmer.

It didn't matter. I would die drowning.



I remembered too late what cold water did to an unsuspecting body. Rigid limbs, stolen breath. My first reaction was always to gasp, which I did, but it was air that I sought, not water. Somehow, I managed to kick my way to the surface where I coughed and spat, trying desperately to clear my airway before recovering my direction. A few paces beside me, Thomas was doing the same.

"Where's Isabel?" I finally managed. Thomas, still coughing, shook his head. I whirled around hoping to catch a glimpse of her swimming toward the nearest ship.

"John!" Thomas choked. Through the jostle of waves and midnight murk, I followed the line of his vision to a crumpled and discarded sail some ten strokes away. Not a sail. Isabel.

She was face down when I approached, her cloak having ballooned her to the surface. My limbs felt like anchors as I righted her. With trembling hands, I released the fabric from her shoulders and pushed it aside. Then, just as she must have done for me in an eerily similar fashion, I looped my arms around her waist and treaded water for us both.

In the distance, I heard the echo of more gunfire. Stupid, I thought. Muskets didn't reach this far.

"This way!" Thomas yelled. Even though I couldn't see him, I adjusted our direction to match the line of his voice. The waves beat against my head, tossing hair in both of our faces and compounding the effort it took to keep moving. I brushed Isabel's out of her face as best I could but gave up when the effort started sinking us both. Desperate for even just a little reprieve, I pushed her onto her back and positioned myself underneath like a life raft. If we were both on our backs, perhaps we could use our combined buoyancy to float ourselves to shore. No such luck.

Thomas, having recovered enough to see the struggle, swam up beside us and pulled Isabel into his own embrace.

"Is she breathing?" he asked.

I gasped, somewhat relieved at the weight leaving my body. My muscles were taut with frost and exhaustion. Another few moments, and they might have given out entirely.

"I don't know," I said. I hadn't had time to check.

In the distance, I could hear the echo of more shots and shouts as Radcliffe and his men trampled about the docks. I hoped Ali had gotten away. As I glanced around, my eyes fell on a small, dark rowboat not thirty feet away. Thomas must have seen it too because he gestured toward it, and together, we inched our way forward.

I couldn't feel anything by the time we reached the boat, but somehow, I managed to keep both Isabel and myself upright as Thomas clambered over the side. Once aboard, he wasted no time in leaning back over for Isabel too. With as much strength as I had left, I propped her as far up as I could manage. She was slippery in Thomas's hands, but eventually he managed to lift her aboard and disappear into the center of the vessel.

The ship that the rowboat was attached to loomed like a dark and imposing sentry over our heads. It was too big to be a fishing boat, so it couldn't have been Thomas's. A cargo ship, perhaps? And if it were, what were the chances that she was ready to sail?

"She's alive!" Thomas called over the side. Something like relief pulsed through me, but I couldn't tear my eyes away from the ship.

"John?" He was leaning back over, a look of panic on his face as if the only cause for silence was something even more wrong.

"Stay down," I told him. "I'll be back in a bit."

If he said anything, I didn't hear it as I took off along the side of the ship. Sometimes these things had ladders draped carelessly over the back. If that was indeed the case, perhaps we could climb aboard and hide until it was safe. I was just rounding the corner when I heard something knock against the side boards and splash heavily into the water beside me. I froze. It was a ladder to be sure, but who had thrown it, I couldn't safely say. If it were Ali, that would be one thing, but a member of the guard? I couldn't take the chance. Carefully, I slunk back into the shadow of the hull and treaded lightly while I waited. A slight figure with dark features peeked over the side, but I was too sheltered to make out much else. It could have been anybody. It was only when I saw them swing one leg over the banister that I began to think it wasn't.

With a clumsy stiffness that seemed odd for the task, the figure descended the ladder and stopped just short of the harbor. They tossed their head from side to side as if looking for something and then sat down sideways on the nearest rung. I stayed where I was.

Up above, I could hear the rumble of feet and the clattering of men. Whether it was Radcliffe himself, I couldn't be certain, but an equestrian shriek and a string of curses suggested that it was at least a handful of his men. The figure on the ladder did not appear to be one of them. When the commotion ceased, I crept around the corner and debated how close I could get without giving myself away. It didn't matter. He'd already seen me.

"John!" Ali whispered. "Where's Isabel? And Monsieur Thomas?" I put my hand up to silence him as I moved closer. When I got to the ladder, I grabbed the edge and listened for any sign of movement above. When I was sure they'd gone, I was startled to see that Ali had been crying. Gone was the self-assured, smart ass hardened by a lifetime of narrow escapes and risky endeavors. Having also heard Phoebus's cry, I felt compelled to assure him.

"Isabel and Thomas are fine," I said. "I left them in a rowboat on the other side of the ship."

"And they haven't been seen?"

"If they were, we'd know by now."

I glanced past Ali to the top of the ladder. If I pulled myself slightly out of the water, I could just make out the edge of the banister. What lay beyond that though was still uncertain. I thought about Thomas and Isabel in the rowboat and knew that no matter how alive Isabel had seemed, she'd need some place dry and warm to stay that way.

The animalistic rush that often accompanied these kinds of situations was fading fast, along with all of the mental and physical protections that it afforded. My whole body shook as I tried to lift myself up. My hands couldn't quite grasp the ladder, and I fell back with a splash. Ali stuck his hand out to help, but my frigid, wet grip was not up to the task.

"Dammit," he said, reaching out to try again. It was no use. I could feel myself growing increasingly lightheaded with every attempt.

"Do you think you could make it back to the rowboat?" he finally asked. "Maybe it would be easier to board from there?"

Maybe, but I doubted I'd be able to make it. The corners of my vision were already starting to spot, and it was enough of an effort just to stay awake. Somewhere, in the deepest corner of my consciousness, I heard a thump and then someone else yelling.

"Ali!" they said.

Everything after that was a mess of movement and disarray.