Bianca would be their guide. What would her sister say if she saw her now, she thought to herself with a sad smile. Apparently, living to old and decrepit age had its benefits. Although it certainly did not make up for all the bad stuff that came with old age. She would see if it proved to be worth it in the end. If they managed to reach the mines unharmed… that was a big if. Numerous explosions went off in the distance, dangerously closer every time.
They were desperate. The young women had their children to take care of, to keep them warm despite the shortage of food. The children too had more share of hardship than what would be considered fair. She would rarely agree to that, seeing as her childhood was not exactly sunshine and rainbows, but upon these circumstances, she could allow herself to reconsider.
Not often a whole generation of younglings was forced to trek up treacherous mountain passes, snow showering on them and slowing their ascent. That was not speaking of a myriad other dangers.
She did not let that worry gather weight. She would bear the burden of worry on herself for now, it was her responsibility. They had no other way. Metaphorically and physically. They were cut off from every side. The only route which was yet open to them was the path up the mountain. It lead higher and higher into the eastern peaks and even that would soon be discovered and unsafe. Damned enemy. Bianca had seen many things in her life, but a war of this scale was not one of them.
That was not to say she did not see it at all. She knew war, very intimately. She largely accepted it, though it was more due to the passage of time than her making peace with it. She never really came to terms with it fully though; she simply could not. Things like that happened to ordinary folk whether they wanted it or not – they had no say in the matter. Coming from a family of farmers and peasants, she was no different. Due to her humble, if unique, roots, she was among the group hit the most by the famine and shortages that affected every pillar of hierarchy, trickling down to wallop the most unfortunate the hardest. Her siblings did not make it. Her sister fell to illness and famine, wasting away in silent suffering. Her brother was caught on a mine trying to protect her from recklessly stepping on it in a field of wheat, his dying image still imprinted in her mind, as vivid as it was then, regardless of how many years passed. She could still see him trying to grasp his intestines with his tiny arms, trying to place them back in where they ought to have been, his face a grimace of pain and shock. He also died painfully, though he did not suffer as long. Bianca though, she survived. Sometimes she wondered if that meant she was the luckiest. Sometimes it meant to her that she suffered the most.
Lately she had been thinking a lot about mortality. Part of it was her advancing age. Another was the unpleasant memories the recent events were stirring up. Once again people were dying en masse, like flies. The was no order to it, no higher plan. At least, she could not see any. After all, how could she justify the death of innocent children and mothers. No, it did not sit right in her book. It still happened, however. It was the reality. Still, she would try to aid the situation, and she was in position to do so.
As she trekked upwards, with her trusty walking staff in her right arm, supported by her daughter on her left, she kept having flashbacks. Despite the snow and the mark left by time, the old road was mostly unchanged. The freezing wind that blew, chilling her bones, was very much like the wind from her past.
Bianca held tight on to the large arm that held her own tiny palm with a firm grip, and was tightly clutching the old dress of the tall and confident woman that was guiding her. She was so scared! Her little heart was pounding so heart she was so afraid it would jump out of her chest. It was possible, she saw it with her own eyes! That’s how her brother… tears formed again at the corners of her eyes, as a tight knot formed in her throat, making it very hard to breathe. Scared about the possibility of her heart escaping her chest even more than the prospect of getting lost, she often tightly clutched her own coat – as though the cloth would keep it from falling out somehow.
Her coat and her dress did not look anything like they once used to. She was upset about that, but in a numb sort of way. She couldn’t really care until her little brain began to process some of the things that happened to her. She felt guilty – even more so than she felt scared. Somehow, in her little heart, there was a creeping suspicion it was all her fault. Even if the beautiful lady said it wasn’t so many times.
She barely looked as they were climbing somewhere up higher and higher. Her eyes were far away most of the time, or closed to protect her eyes from the wind that was blowing in her face, until they were rushing again when the woman would glance back and urge them to go on. There was a total of forty to fifty of them. The rest, she did not know where they were. The lady said they were all safe now, but she was so sad when she said it. She was smiling, but the smile was so sad that it made her little chest tighten. She did not believe the lady – not because she was mean or was lying to her. She could not know if it was true and she was unsure if she believed the lady.
In the distance, there were sounds of shouting, and explosions – although they were not as loud as that other time, they still shook the ground and her along with it. There were sounds of shooting. Every so often, someone screamed out, the sound immediately followed by a heavy thud. Bianca did not look back – she promised to the kind lady she won’t. She held on tight, walking and half running as fast as she could to keep up with the strong lady. Her toes and feet were in pain, cut in many places. She wanted to cry, but she would not. Not because she was strong like the lady – because she knew that no one would be able to help her if she cried.
Numerous explosions thundered all around them, causing rocks to dislodge and fall. It was still terrifying, every bit as she remembered it was.
A mine entrance appeared in the distance. Finally. The cave’s entrance fell in, covered with rocks and planks which had collapsed. She knew that of course, it was this very mine she crawled out of so many years ago. She could see it still, the small hole on the bottom of the entrance, or what was left of it.
She walked past it, unfazed by some cries of dismay among her followers, hitting her staff against rock with a steady pace as she trudged on. A bit further off, there would be what she was looking for. The cries were quickly silenced as everyone followed once again. They had no other choice of escape after all. No one knew these mountain passes as well as old Bianca.
The little girl was in pain. She was alone, no sign of the beautiful lady or anyone else around her. Every part of her weak and frail body hurt. Bianca didn’t notice it however. All her attention was on the loud heartbeat of hers that she became so aware of once everything quieted down. Out of her low hiding place, she could see boots. Heavy, black, long boots. Stepping with a certainty and measured pace. They passed her. Then they passed again. She could not take her eyes away from them, she couldn’t blink, afraid that if she looked away even for a moment, the scary men would suddenly be looking back at her through the small opening once she opened her eyes.
Bianca went on after the caved in entrance. That shaft was useless anyway. No, there was another one. This one, she knew, was not as easy to spot – it was not on the road after all. It was directly below it. Although it was so close to it, Bianca knew with confidence that no one knew of it. She knew with even more certainty that it was no easy feat do discover it, especially for an eye that did not know where to look.
The trail grew increasingly thin as they went on, the cliff rising ever steeper on the left, with an abyss stretching down into unseen depths on their right.
The explosions continued, and it became progressively harder to maintain balance due to the tremors, and harder to hide from the rocks falling overhead, although the cliff did offer a semblance of protection. Most of the rocks did not reach them, and only smaller ones ever passed close enough to them to actually reach them. They were very careful though, despite their haste. They now went on in single file, with children clutching tightly to their mothers and older siblings.
Before long, Bianca saw it. The telltale rock that she often fancied had a happy face drawn on it. It was a little awkward and misshapen, but she recognized it nonetheless. The rock signified to her that she finally arrived to their destination. The rock stood to the right of the road, against the emptiness stretching out behind it. As the path passed the rock, it veered to the left, widening and disappearing behind a bend of the cliff. Behind the rock, in the wall of the cliff below their level, was a smaller path, much thinner, and very hard to find. To see it, one had to effectively look over the edge. Due to the bend, there was little incentive to do so. Bianca was sure that their pursuers would rush to pass the bend to gain visibility of the rest of the path heading off to the left. After all, the rock was not all that noticeable; only to her it meant something more than just a plain boulder. Here she quickly gave instructions to her young followers. They slowly descended onto the thinner path, with children passed to those who were below. She explained to them, that at the end of that road, they will see another mine entrance. They did not need to be told twice. There was little time. Too little. In quick succession, all people safely descended. All save for Bianca. She was too frail and old to attempt such a trick, she told them. She knew it too. Bianca told them not to worry about her – she knew these passes after all, she knew of a place where she would wait it out. Her daughter understood. There was no time to argue and everyone realized it – there was no way she could climb down safely. Eventually, they went down the path, to the mine Bianca pointed out to them. Making them promise they would not do anything stupid and will stay hidden, Bianca finally sighed with relief. She felt content. Maybe this was her purpose - why she survived when all the others perished. After all, she was the only Vaalishan left. She saw what those damned imperialists really did.
She often had to remind herself of those things she witnessed, to remember, to see through all the propaganda and the lies. She would see to it that her culture survived. Before, it meant she had to survive. Although that war had long claimed her along with her siblings, she went on living. In spite of it, despite it. She lived and prospered. Now, she wasn’t so alone anymore. She had people who would follow in her stead. She had raised wonderful children who would carry on her culture.
Another explosion resounded, echoing as it sent ever more rocks tumbling. The women and the children were safely hidden in the mine by then. However, the explosion went off too close to Bianca – much like that other one from her childhood. She was lucky her brother protected her then. Maybe now, she finally made his sacrifice worth it.