(Ok, next part of the novel-writing challenge. I'm trying to do at least 500 words a day, but I didn't manage yesterday so here's 1000 instead. Warning - unedited inkvomit ahead.]
It turned out that Arkel, as well as being a thief, could also be economical with the truth at times.
"Wait until you see where we live," he'd boasted to Irena as she followed him and Gia out of the courtyard and down a flight of steps. " Just you wait - it's the best hideout this side of the river."
Gia made a rude sound, like a horse snorting. "I'm not so sure about that."
"It is too." Arkel shouted back, running on ahead, "C'mon, hurry up or we'll miss it."
Irena looked at Gia. "Miss what?"
Gia started to run as well, and Irena was forced into a trot to keep up, her bare feet stumbling in the sandy dirt. She turned a corner and ran straight into the back of Gia, who grabbed hold of her sleeve and pulled her down into a crouch behind some stacked bales of fabric. Just in front of them, the street surface dropped away, with only small wooden platforms and a shaky staircase filling the gap. Hundreds of feet below, the river was like a strip of ragged grey silk, flecked with white. The wooden slats of the staircase were old and worn, and the only handrail was a sagging rope attached at intervals to the wall with rusty metal fixings.
Irena scrambled back from the dizzying sight. "I'm not going down there on that! It doesn't look safe at all," she cried out.
Gia jumped on her, and shoved a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. Arkel smirked, "Don't worry, we're not going down on the shakeway."
There was a rumbling sound, followed by creaking. He pointed up over his head, "We're going on THAT."
Above them, a last great bale of fabric was being loaded onto a large wooden platform. It began to descend, slowly at first, but gathering more speed as the momentum built up. Arkel got up from the ground and turned to grin at Irena. "Ready?" He eyed up the platform, and tensed his muscles in readiness for the jump. Just before the bale drew level with their ledge, he sprang forward and grasped hold of the network of ropes lashing the fabric bundles to the wooden base. He waved one hand triumphantly to the girls. One of his feet slipped and he quickly brought his hand back, "Oops..."
Gia stood up, looked around, and gave Irena a quick push forward. "Your turn now."
Irena gazed in horror at the swaying platform in front of her. It lurched from side to side even with only Arkel's slight weight as he wriggled onto the top. She took a step backward and Gia shoved a hand at the base of her spine. "You need to be quick. Jump."
The top of the bale platform was now level with them. Irena took a deep breath and a running jump forward, clutched at the rope and promptly shut her eyes tight. Arkel slapped her on the back and crowed in delight.
"Move over!" Gia called down. She shimmied down the rope and hopped off beside them. The bale had sped up slightly with their combined weight. Irena squealed and slid down the rope to sit on the bale, while Arkel sat on the edge and dangled his legs over the side.
"You can open your eyes now, " said Gia.
Irena opened one eye a crack and immediately closed it again. The ground had swung about far below them as the bale rocked back and forth perilously close to the cliff wall. It was better to keep your eyes shut.
"Our stop's coming up soon." Arkel said, hanging off the side of the bale by his hands.
"Show off, " muttered Gia, with a look at Irena. "She's not even looking at you, you know."
Arkel scrambled back up. He nudged Irena with his foot. "Go on, open your eyes, scaredy. Bet you don't dare, bet you."
It occured to Irena that it wasn't very princess-like to clutch at the rope quite so tightly. And it certainly wasn't dignified to be prodded and poked at and made fun of by a dirty little boy with no manners. She opened her eyes. "I'm NOT scared," she said defiantly, carefully loosening her grip on the rope, "I just didn't want to get dust in my eyes. That would be painful." And that wasn't an out and out lie, because no one wanted to get dust in their eyes. It just wasn't the only reason.
"Oh, you just blink that away," Arkel reassured her, as Gia gave a short burst of laughter.
Trying to ignore the lurching in her empty stomach, Irena peered cautiously over the side, her fingers still curled tightly around the rope.
"See?" said Arkel, appearing over her shoulder. "It's quite impressive, really."
The steep cliffs of the river gorge now towered above them on both sides. Wooden platforms, stairways and houses clung to natural stone projections, linked by flimsy looking bridges that drooped in the middle as if flagging in the heat of the day. But the sunlight only reached so far down the cliffs - the rest of the journey was cast in shadow as the sun slowly disappeared out of sight. There was something mesmerising in the swiftly passing scenery, and Irena almost relaxed her grip a little - at least until Arkel broke the silence.
"Here's where it really slows down, just before it goes into the dyehouse, see?" He pointed to one of the thin wooden platforms that jutted out from the cliff. The rough-hewn beams supporting the platform projected out beyond the surface, and Arkel hopped off easily, followed by Gia, with Irena clutching tightly to the back of her shirt.
As the bale passed the beams, it rang a small metal bell.
"Time to go," said Gia, skidding across the platform. There was the bang of a wooden door from below, and a voice called out, "Hey, Inran - those brats are riding the bales again. Want me to grab 'em for you?"
"Run." Arkel said, grabbing Irena's wrist and pulling her along after him.