Over the next few days, Irena explored every inch of the hideout. She decided that it was much more fun than exploring in the palace because there were no servants to appear and tell you that anything was forbidden, and no nurse or books mistress to stop you from climbing on the furniture. Not that she'd ever thought of doing that before, but she could tell that it would be just the sort of thing that would be forbidden. Besides, it was much easier to climb once she'd got rid of the heavy embroidered coat that dragged her down. The only problem was the lack of light, but her eyes soon adjusted to the darkness and the flickering lamplight.
Arkel, when he was around, watched her progress with interest, and occasionally offered advice and encouragement. "Move your foot left a bit...no, don't put your hand there...it's really much easier if you go up the other way..."
The hideout seemed to have once been part of a larget network of tunnels, as other passages led off the main chamber, but these had mostly been blocked off by rubble or securely boarded up.
"What's behind this one?" she asked, banging on the wood and trying to peer inbetween the slats to the gloom beyond. Arkel sauntered over and kicked at the boards with a dusty foot.
"Dunno," he said, "Never been able to get the boards off. 'Sides, Gia says it's dangerous to go wandering off in these places."
"That's right," Gia said, chucking a bag on the floor that clinked heavily as it hit the sandy ground, "You might fall down a mine shaft and never be seen again."
"What's a mine?" Irena asked, as Arkel fell on the bag and started shaking it out over the floor in excitement.
Gia looked over," It's where they dig stuff out of the ground. Useful stuff, or valuable, doesn't really matter. Sometimes it's deep underground and the tunnels are so small they need to use little children to get at it..."
Arkel had spread all the things out around him in a circle and was moving them from pile to pile: small spoons, tiny metal cups, a brooch with a broken pin, a handful of worn coins, and a sash made of some brightly coloured stuff with a heavy metal clasp.
"Use children? How?" Irena persisted, half-fascinated and half horrified.
Gia made a face as if she was remembering something horrible, but couldn't stop herself from continuing."Well, see, they can only dig the tunnels so far by hand, so they send the smallest children through the cracks in the rocks with the spark powder and something to light it with. Then they have to crawl back before the tunnel caves in. Sometimes they don't make it back."
This was the longest speech Gia had made since Irena had known her. Arkel had stopped playing with the contents of the bag and was staring open mouthed at Gia. "You think this is a mine then? Hey, maybe we could find something valuable without having to even leave. I'm small enough to fit through most spaces."
Gia and Irena shared a look that went over Arkel's head.
"What? I am though..."
Gia scooped her haul back into the bag and stalked off, "I need to take these to Mamata's," she called over her shoulder.
After she'd left, Irena and Arkel tried to see if there were any treasures hidden in their mine, Eventually, fingers sore and nails scraped, they gave up, at least until the next day. Irena pulled the largest rag over herself, yawned, and fell into a deep sleep. Her dreams over the last few nights had been of the usual sort, full of strange staircases, guards with hands outstretched to grab her, and that horrible feeling of wanting to run but being unable to move.
This dream was different.