Chapter 24 Blood-like Sunset Part 4
This small village was located in the foothills of Xixia Mountain. Xixia Mountain was not tall, only slightly higher than an average hill. When the sky first clears after rain, the green mountain top still stays covered by clouds. However, such an unremarkable mountain range still became the border between Yan and Dongyun. At the south of the mountain range lay Yan and in the north Dongyun. The two countries lived in peace and seldom had wars. The jurisdiction over the border was also loose.
Yan Changqing and Helian Rongchuan walked along the mountain path. On the way, they encountered many village women in shabby clothes carrying bamboo baskets and many had young children hanging on their chests waiting to be fed. Yan Changqing was stunned by what he accidentally saw in a peasant woman’s bamboo basket.
Although the small back basket was covered by floral cloth, the black bright stones emerged from the corner that was not tucked. It was the temper snow stones!
Helian Rongchuan turned his head and saw Yan Changqing staring at the village woman carrying the basket thoughtfully. He smiled faintly, and said, “They all picked up the leaks.”
Yan Changqing frowned: “Picked up the leaks?”
“God really can be unfair sometimes. South of Qixia Mountain belongs to your Yan Kingdom. There are overgrown weeds and nothing desirable. But the north side belongs to our Dongyun Kingdom and with countless temper snow stones in the belly of the mountain. When the Dongyun Kingdom sends people to mine and transport them, a lot of fragments of rock would inevitably be dropped. The villagers living at the foot of the mountains secretly cross the border and pick up these rocks to sell and support their families.”
Helian Rongchuan kept talking while moving forward: “Those pieces of temper snow stones, although not worth much can still pay for a few feet of cloth for children and a few buckets of thick rice.”
Yan Changqing watched silently as Helian Rongchuan walked away.
As the sun faded to the west, the two of them stayed silent. Unknowingly they had come under a cliff. Yan Changqing couldn’t help but clench his scabbard tightly and followed Helian Rongchuan closely. It was quite remote here, and incredibly silent. From a distance, only the faint rushing of a waterfall could be heard. After walking along the cliff for a while, Yan Changqing saw that the path in front of him was getting steeper and steeper and then suddenly turned. Behind the steep cliff, a huge cave appeared.
Helian Rongchuan raised his eyebrows: “The things you have been seeking are inside, but does the general dare enter?”
Yan Changqing asked, “Why not?”
He said this as he stepped forward.
There was a unique charm to this cave. The stone ceiling above was flat and upon closer inspection, one could see that it was full of traces of knives and axes. Yan Changqing occasionally kicked one or two hard objects at his feet, which turned out to be fist-sized bright black temper snow stones.
This was the mine where the Dongyun people mined for temper snow stones.
The deeper he walked into the cave, the dimmer the light became, and Helian Rongchuan stopped to light a torch. Yan Changqing finally saw what was behind him, and his heartbeat picked up.
Temper snow stones.
Twenty ships worth of temper snow stones were neatly stacked on top of the stone steps. There were more than twenty steps, and a woman in white stood impressively at the top. At first glance, Yan Changqing thought that this was a village woman picking up the leaks. However, after seeing him approach the woman continued to stand still.
This woman turned out to be a white jade statue.
Helian Rongchuan climbed up to the top of the stone steps, step by step. His two long legs strode up the stone steps in no time, which made his posture look even more straight and slender. Leaning on the white jade statue with his back, he smiled and beckoned to Yan Changqing:
“Come on, come up and meet your mother-in-law.”
Yan Changqing raised his eyes and glanced at Helian Rongchuan coldly, motionless.
Helian Rongchuan had no choice but to say: “Okay, please, Master Yan, move your feet forward and come up and talk?”
Yan Changqing nodded slightly, then walked up the steps unhurriedly.
Now that he was getting closer, he realized that the carving of this jade statue was slightly rough. Whether it was the jade statue’s hemline or facial contour, the carving technique was immature. It seemed that a novice carver had put a lot of effort into it but still was not very skilled. Even though the carving technique was unfamiliar, the expression on this jade statue’s face was extremely vivid. The work was not amazing at first glance but it seemed very gentle and amiable. The statue looked as if it would come to life at any time.
The more Yan Changqing looked at it, the more he felt a sense of familiarity wash over him. Its appearance was somewhat similar to Helian Rongchuan’s.
Could it be that this jade statue really depicted Helian Rongchuan’s biological mother?
Then why were these twenty ships of temper snow stones here?
Helian Rongchuan patted the empty spot on the stone steps beside him: “Is Master Yan curious? Then sit down. If you sit here, this prince will tell you.”
Yan Changqing glanced at him and then sat down upright, keeping a distance of about one foot from Helian Rongchuan. With his waist kept straight, he stated: “I would like to hear the details.”
Helian Rongchuan took in the other’s cold demeanour but was not at all annoyed:
“Where did we leave off in the story? Oh yes, it was how the ill-fated woman made a living. Heavens never truly bar one’s way. The woman gritted her teeth and on her way back to the village cried through Qixia Mountain. Occasionally, she would see Dongyun people emerge from the cave where the temper snow stones were. The carriage that held these precious stones came and went, and a few pieces would be left behind. So to survive, the woman sneaked over to Qixia Mountain every day shortly after giving birth to a little boy, and followed the carriages secretly, picking up the leftovers. Afterwards, she would sell them for money.”
“One turned to ten, ten turned into a hundred. There were many poor women like her in the village where she was. So the woman kindly lead these poor women and their children who could already walk to go pick up the leaks together. But with so many people following behind the carriage, how can they not be discovered? The officials mining the ore soon found them. They should also be considered lucky as the official didn’t hold them accountable for the crime of selling snow temper stones in secret. On the contrary, he was willing to give them errands to run so that they could earn money from their own labour.”
Yan Changqing frowned slightly. He had a premonition about the direction this story was taking.
“The woman was very happy when she heard that and she even brought her son with her. The official arranged some things for them to take and sent them to the cave to conduct fire explosion excavations. These fire explosions are what happens when one heats the rock wall in the cave and then pours cold water over it. The rock is hard, but it splits open between the alteration of extreme cold and heat. After hitting it with an axe, one can mine the temper snow stones more easily. It sounds simple, right? That woman thought so too, so she and other poor women happily agreed to this job.”
Helian Rongchuan spoke unhurriedly, but the smile at the corner of his mouth gradually disappeared:
“It’s just that, the kind official didn’t tell these people that using the fire explosion excavation to retrieve the stones, although extremely efficient, was also extremely dangerous. If not careful, one may cause a cave-in. Therefore, in every cave that excavates the snow-tempered stone, the fire explosion excavation workers are the ones who earn the most money. The official wanting to hog the money that was sent for this purpose would use a very low salary to bait these poor women to replace costly fire explosion workers.”
Helian Rongchuan turned around and looked up at the jade statue. At this angle, his long fringe just blocked his eyes, and Yan Changqing couldn’t see the expression on his face. Following his eyes, Yan Changqing noticed that less than a step behind the jade statue, there was a deep pit which looked several thousands of metres deep. The pit was filled with layers of black boulders. Like a silent tomb. A black tomb built out of rough temper snow stones.
Yan Changqing only felt his heart sink. He understood something instantly.
The hardships of the beginning, an undertaking of the village women, the heavy bamboo basket bending their thin shoulders, yet they still clasped their children’s little hands tightly, with hope for life. Step by step, they would walk into the dark cave.
A thin little boy, barefoot and staring with big dark brown eyes, looked at the low and depressed stone wall as he walked.
“Mother, I’m scared.” The little boy tightly held on to the hand of the woman next to him.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. When we finish today’s work, we will have money to buy food. Mother will make you elm money to eat, okay?”
The temptation of the elm money was too great for the little boy, and he swallowed his saliva, gritted his teeth and continued to move forward.
The further inside they went, the darker it got in the cave. Only the bright torches and their shadows were left to dance across the yellow and thin faces of the poor women walking forward, like female ghosts going to h*ll one by one. The little boy’s legs and feet were soft, and the words he said came out like a cry:
“Mother, I…I’m still scared.”
The woman hesitated for a while, sighed, then squatted down to take the small basket behind the little boy. Her calloused hand gently rubbed the little boy’s hair and she said:
“Then you go back and wait for your mother at the entrance of the cave. Don’t run, okay?”
The little boy’s eyes lit up: “Okay! I’ll be good, and wait for Mother to come out and give me buns!”
The little boy was relieved and ran out towards the white light at the entrance of the cave. The faint flame behind him dimmed, and the woman’s haggard smile was gradually swallowed by darkness.
The little boy was so afraid of the darkness in the cave that he didn’t even look back.
Not even a glance.
“Master Yan, do you know what the sound of a landslide is like? The sound is so loud as if it is going to split the whole mountain apart. But for a moment, you can’t hear or see anything. You just feel the blood all over your body as if it just wanted to escape your insides, spraying out from your eyes, nose and mouth. A scene of crimson red. But you can’t move. You are buried under a huge boulder, you can only watch.”
Helian Rongchuan wore a faint sad smile. His tone was still calm, but his fists were clenched so tightly, his knuckles paling by the second, his nails embedded in his palms:
“You just watch it all happen unable to do anything.”
Yan Changqing turned his head and watched Helian Rongchuan’s face quietly. There seemed to be a dim light floating in those black mercury-like eyes.