Tobirama woke when Hashirama threw the blankets back and hurried out of the room. She stood more silently and made sure not to disturb Kawarama and Itama who had curled against each other on their half of the mattress.
Hashirama was in the bathroom, so Tobirama knocked and heard him groan, but no sign of protest came out of him as she opened the door softly. Hashirama was leaning against the wall at the back of the room, a single candle lit on the windowsill at his side and he looked miserable. She closed the door behind herself. The bucket he had just thrown up in rested between his legs, so Tobirama exchanged it with a fresh one. “You really shouldn’t have tried these mushrooms.”
“I know.” He sniffled, while Tobirama felt his sweaty forehead. “They looked delicious though.”
“And now you’re fevering.” She stood and wetted a towel, handing it to him so he could rest it on his face. “Is there still enough mixture for another tea?”
He only moaned exhausted and nodded, keeping his head low and sweat pearling on his forehead. She caressed his head reassuringly and went to the kitchen to fan the flames and set up the kettle atop.
When she came back, Hashirama had lain down and huffed silently. “Hashirama?”
“It hurts.” The towel moved from atop his eyes and he looked at her. “This must be what female bleeding feels like.”
Tobirama curled her lips in a laugh and rested her hand atop his brow to brush away his sweaty strands. “We should move to the kitchen. I don’t want father to wake.” He would rage for disturbing his sleep.
“Yeah, I don’t need that right now.” Hashirama was able to stand and move on his own.
The kitchen was lightened dimly by the lesser moons. Summer nights were never fully dark.
Hashirama settled on the floor next to the backdoor and their muddy shoes, then felt for the door’s handle and opened it far enough to let in cooling night air.
The water in the kettle was simmering, so Tobirama took it from the flame and measured Hashirama’s prepared herbal mixture to cure some of the symptoms of mushroom poisoning.
By the time she turned to eye him, he was shivering. She went and crouched to feel his forehead once more, but it was still hot. “Where is the towel?”
He shrugged his shoulders. Tobirama found it in the small hall and wetted it once more, before she gave it back to him.
“You should take out the herbs.” He mentioned, covering his eyes and leaning back.
“Right.” She poured it through a sieve into a mug. “What else is there to do?”
“It works better if you stir in a spoon of Ichotsu-syrup.”
That she did and placed the mug on the floor in front of Hashirama alongside a glass of water which he downed in one go.
She sat next to him and leaned against the door frame, but there was no chance for her to feel cold from the soft wind drawing in, because Hashirama’s warm body leaned against her side and his especially warm head rested on her shoulder. She indulged him with gently stroking his hair. “Promise me to never do something so reckless again.”
They sat there for a while until Hashirama sat up and took the mug to drink its beverage. The smell was off-putting, but the taste must have been worse, because he pulled a face but drank every last sip anyway. Then he settled against her once more.
“If you can sleep, you should.” He hummed a vague agreement, but his breathing evened a short while after. Tobirama stayed awake and watched the tree tops sway with the wind and the stars in the sky shift with time’s passing.
The lesser moons were still four and a half fingers above the furthest mountain range when Hashirama stirred again and Tobirama looked at him concerned. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, but still achy.” He felt along the back of his neck and something cracked. “Your shoulders are so bony, my neck is stiff now.”
“Let’s get you to bed then.” Tobirama stood and took away the mug and glass.
Hashirama sighed. “I have to make my delivery to the pharmacy tomorrow.”
Right, Hashirama was the apprentice of a pharmacist in the city down in the valley and he delivered medical plants twice a week and was taught in exchange. At this point in his education there was not a lot he needed to be taught and in autumn he would take a fulltime position when one of the other pharmacists retired.
“Its fine, I’ll collect them.” Tobirama handed him a glass of water which he drank obediently. “Come on now.”
Hashirama sighed, but they made it back into their room silently. Kawarama and Itama were still soundly asleep and Hashirama settled under the blanket next to them.
Ever since Hashirama had had his latest growth spurt he had to duck under their doorways and the mattress the four of them shared was getting too small.
“Thanks Tobi. Wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
“Sleep Hashirama, I’ll be back with your plants.” She huffed amused, undressing and pulling out some of her clothing. Most of her shirts and pants were baggy and used to belong to Hashirama, all in dark or earthy colours and slightly discoloured from age.
Even when summers ran hot, Tobirama was adamant to cover as much of her skin as possible to protect from the sun.
Tobirama found Hashirama’s things neatly prepared in the yard. His bamboo basket was a bit too big for her back, but that would not bother her. His knifes were sharp and she bound the pouch around her hip. She quickly picked food she could find in their cooling shed and set out into the forest that surrounded the Senju’s village.
It was made up by 42 houses nestled onto a mountain plateau, marbled with fields of rice, wheat and potatoes, vegetable gardens and yards, barns and storage buildings. A market space and a small shrine make up the centre.
The three lesser moons did not light up the forest enough for Tobirama to be able to make out any details, but the plants she came for lit up like burning incense sticks until she grabbed their stems and pulled them out.
She had to fill the entire basket and a long way to the clearing that the most important of herbs grew on.
The first ray of their major sun rose above the mountain’s peak right as her knife cut through thick branches to clear a path onto the mountain’s highest plateau. Mist still settled over the lush pasture and filtered the first raise of golden morning sun that fell on the only house and several trees on this clearing.
Right at the edge grew a greenish white flower that Hashirama hailed so she made sure to not damage any and started to collect a decent amount of blossoms. She left enough so that the population could sustain and turned towards the edge of the steep cliff.
Tobirama could oversee most of the valley from here in which the city beneath their mountain lay.
During summer, the Senju’s farmers wrangled their sheep and cattle to this lot. There was less than a moon cycle to go until the grass would be recovered form the last grazing and lush again, so she and her cousins were on rotation to habitat the shed and look after the animals.
Tobirama washed her soil covered hands in the small stream that parted the plateau and cut along several boulders. The water was as chilling on her cut and brittle fingers but Tobirama paid it no mind. She also refilled her leather pouch and drank before refilling it once more. She went on with cleaning her knifes that were partly covered in sticky sap and covered in mud.
As she put away the last blade into her pouch, the creaking of breaking branches alerted her to several deer bolting threw the underwood and she jumped to her feet looking around.
No one aside her should be up here and she had seen nobody when she entered the clearing. If somebody from the village had followed she would have noticed.
So who was the stranger standing in front of the shed’s open door and staring at her.
It was a man, nearly as tall as Hashirama and probably the same age too. His hair was as black as raven feathers, bound with cloth and his eyes matched with a stern and calculating gaze. If his facial expression wasn’t aristocratic enough, his fine and thoroughly dark-blue-dyed clothing was that of a city dweller.
His voice, as he cuts through the silence, was deep and demanding. “Who are you?”
Something in Tobirama stiffened. “A member of the village whose shed you stepped out of.” It was so rare for a stranger to roam these woods and especially make it up this high. And it could be highly dangerous. So high up and far from the village, no one would hear her if he decided to attack. If she made it to the forest before he caught up with her, she could use her knowledge of the terrain to her advantage.
“Then you know how to leave this plateau.” It was not a question, but his glance still lingered on her, so she answered with a crisp nod. A noble man’s son in her village’s humble shed.
“Good, I’d like you to lead me to a road to the city then.”
Tobirama inclined her head slightly. “My I know your name first?”
He didn’t answer immediately, eventually turned his head to stare into the forest. “Madara. That is all you need to know.”
He was named after the King’s heir, crown prince Madara Uchiha and Tobirama could not resist a comment. “You must be from the main city.”
His gaze returned to her and grew more cautious. “Why do you think that?”
“This city’s noblewomen and noblemen do not scale these mountains. They know that there is nothing to be gained here aside from mosquito bites and injury if one does not know the terrain. You’re lucky you did not fall in a crevasse or down a cliff.” After a smirk she added. “Your dialect is the most telling however.”
“You are quit impertinent. Do you not know how to respect?”
She did not want to offend him and made sure to keep her voice devoid of judgement. “You’re atop a mountain I know better than you, slept in a shed I helped to build and gave me nothing but a first name.” She purposefully left it at that.
He stood there, mouth tucked into something like a scowl and huffed eventually. “You’re right, I come from the main city. You must have a good ear, I make an effort to keep as close to standard pronunciation as possible.” And he did that quit successfully. His language was nearly devoid of all lulls or hints of any region.
“I know standard well enough to know what is and isn’t part of it. That you must be from the main city was an educated guess.”
“Well, now give me your name in return.” His stance had slightly relaxed, but Tobirama also no longer felt the stiffness in her spine. He certainly did not seem inclined to steal or rape her. She did not count herself as desirable anyway, with her boyish short hair and muddy clothing, skinny frame and sickly white skin that lobsterised at the first touch of the sun.
“Tobirama.” Her stomach churned, which brought her thoughts back to his original question. “Are you in a hurry?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I haven’t had breakfast yet and I hate to eat while walking.”
He waved his hand, but turned. “Go ahead then, I’ll pack my things in the meantime.”
Madara vanished in the shed, leaving the door open and Tobirama wondered what sort of belongings he had to pack. His stay up in the mountains did not sound like a planned trip and he certainly was not a gatherer like Hashirama.
She sat down on a large, smooth stone underneath an old, crooked cherry tree and pulled her tightly wrapped rice cakes and bread slathered with Kooki-root mousse out.
Madara returned without a bag while she was still unwrapping the leaf from her rice cake and his gaze lingered on the food for a long second that was telling. Right, Tobirama thought, if he had been up here all night and had not come prepared for a stay, he must be hungry as well. She doubted he was knowledgeable enough to find eatable plants.
She motioned at the space on the rock next to her, it was risky but she was interested in him enough to take it. “I would be inclined to share…”
He wavered. “I don’t usually eat food offered by a stranger.”
“I have no interest in poisoning you.” And had hardly had the chance or foresight to do so anyway.
Madara sat down slowly and stiff, but did not grab any of her leaf-wrapped packages. “What is this?”
“This,” She pointed at the bigger square. “Is a rice cake filled with vegetables mash. The rest are buns made with wheat-flour and marinated pork as a filling. This is bread with spread. My brother prepared them yesterday, so I cannot name you any specifics, but take which ever you like.”
Madara nodded and hesitantly grabbed the vegetable cake first.
They ate in silence, watching the stream shift its pebbles and butterflies hurtling around. It was almost peaceful, basking in the shadows in silent company and taking in the swaying leaves above her.
Tobirama was the first to rise and wash her hands in the stream once more, but Madara followed shortly after and straightened as well. “Before we leave, I need to saddle my horse.”
That certainly peaked her interest and Tobirama raised a brow. “You have a horse?” It was nowhere to be seen so the only plausible place it could be was the shelter behind the shed covered from her view by a big boulder.
Horses were expensive, especially those only used for transport. The Senju only kept cattle, as it brought more meat and milk, and less likely to bold over a fence.
Madara was already on his way up the muddy meadow, his unguarded back towards Tobirama. He threw Tobirama a glance. “Yes, how else should I have gotten up here?”
“By foot, I assumed.”
“That would have taken me days.” Madara entered the shed and even though Tobirama was technically a co-owner of the building, she waited outside to not impose the other’s privacy.
When Madara came back out, he had taken off his top robe and revealed a more lenient pullover. He and was carrying a heavy looking leather saddle and several leather bags.
He looked apologetic and opened on of his bags to show her something that looked like a mattress lining. “I will repay you for the used bedsheets. I’m afraid these got a bit sandy.”
“That is not necessary, we wash and reuse them.”
“Then let me at least pay an appropriate fine for the breach of your property.”
Tobirama had read in several books that other villages and especially the aristocratic city dwellers had a firmer stance on individual property. Or more correctly, most did not practice the communal usage of readily available and necessary items like the Senju did. Their practice of sharing included outsiders to a certain extend. “The shed was empty and I trust that you did not damage anything. There really is no need to pay a fine.”
The way he rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw looked so utterly mundane, it was weird to see it on a fine structured face like his. Then again, the instances in which Tobirama had seen or even talked to an aristocrat were countable on two hands. “Then at least except a payment to show my gratitude.” He sounded irritated too.
No point in antagonising him, when he had obviously had made up his mind. “Whatever you wish for.”
“Just tell me what you like before we part and I’ll arrange for someone to deliver it to you.” He turned without waiting for a reply and Tobirama huffed, but she followed him nonetheless.
They went to the side of the shed sheltered by a gigantic moss-covered and weathered rock.
There, in the partially open shelter for the Senju’s cattle and sheep stood a horse so tall, Madara himself could not look above its back. It flinched nervously and its bulk of muscles twitched, pulling on the rein by which it was bound to the shelter’s wall.
Tobirama froze at the entrance and merely watched as Madara walked towards the horse’s snout and loosened the leather rein by which it was bound. Against Tobirama’s expectations, the animal did not pull or attempt to flee but calmed visibly under Madara’s firm touch.
It looked nothing like the horses Tobirama had had a glimpse on. Aside from the height, it was muscly but lean and obviously from an extremely expensive breed.
Madara petted its neck, scratched a spot underneath the twitching ears and only then put down some soft looking underpadding on its back on which he heaved the saddle and bound it firmly with a strap underneath the belly.
Tobirama felt safe enough to raise her voice. “I have never seen a horse this colouring.”
He spoke, a bit distracted by fastening the leather pouches to the front of the saddle. “Some call it webbed, but the more corrected term would be dappled. She is still young and especially pretty.”
To Tobirama, it looked like a star covered, brightening night-sky. The mare’s fur was a variation of darkening grey tones and white splattered in dots. But her mane and tail were as dark as Madara’s hair. “Dappled greys like her start out dark, but her fur will turn lighter with age.”
He led her towards Tobirama, who hurried to step aside so they could pass. “Does she need feeding before we leave?”
“She was bred at the edge of the Dundee desert and is more robust than most working horses you may know. Her reins were bound long enough so she could graze anyway.” He stopped at the stream to let her drink. Tobirama heaved the basket onto her back and watched them.
“Does she have a name?”
“A big name to fill in.” To name a horse after the Goddess of the sun was something Tobirama felt unsure about, but Madara seemed to have no such reservations.
“I thought it quit fitting for a hot-headed mare of the dessert.” The look they exchanged was weird, but Madara broke the silence, letting his gaze wander. “So, where do we have to go?”
Tobirama pointed towards the hedge she cut her way through earlier. “This direction, but we may have to make detours. Our paths were not made for animals her size.”
They made their way across the grass. Madara walking alongside Tobirama and Amaterasu tracking along energetically. The opening was narrow, but Tobirama and her basket fit. As Madara had implied, his mare didn’t even flinch as she forced her way through the thick branches, some of which caught in her mane.
They passed the thick layer of hedges and worked their way to the more open underwood. This high up on the mountain, plenty of light shone to the ground. Tobirama left the small trail for Madara and Amaterasu and choose to walk alongside them through the scarce growth. Now and again she saw plants she would have collected for Hashirama, but her basket was almost full and already heavy.
Madara must have noticed her concentrated glance and the reflexive grab to her knife pouch. “Did you come up here to collect herbs?” She took a quick side glance to muster him, but Madara’s gaze was roaming the rocks and hedges in the distant or maybe the steep edge were the mountain side turned steep.
“Herbs, roots, wild vegetables. During this period of the warm season the ones I am looking for are particularly easy to find.” She stepped over a thorny bush. “Some are best found before sunrise.”
“They must be worth plenty if you take such great lengths to gather them.”
“They are. The pharmacy in the city gives us a good deal.” Most of them were necessary for medical salves or tinctures. He did not make the impression of someone low enough to steal them from her or in need for Alnas.
“I never knew pharmacies employ outsiders to do their gathering.”
“They don’t. My elder brother is their apprentice. I’m only here in his stead, because he is sick.”
“And you?” When she looked at him now, he was already looking at her and didn’t even flinch when she caught him staring.
“You want to know what I do during the day?” Madara nodded once,
“It depends. I help with whatever needs to be done and there is usually enough to busy a whole village.” Harvest season was approaching fast and the days would be especially full then. Madara only hummed and seemed to encourage further elaboration so Tobirama sighed and continued. “Repairing, cleaning, cooking, tending to the fields and vegetable garden, storing. The only tasks that fall to me specifically are overseeing the village’s expenses and earnings, and the planning and implementation of new ideas and innovations.”
He looked honestly puzzled by her wording. “What is that supposed to mean?”
She had to be careful now. Some men didn’t take well to the idea of a woman coming up and implementing new technologies. The only reason her village tolerated such a behaviour was because there was no one else endeavoured with the brains to come up with the anything as good as hers. These were probably also the most moments even the elders were grateful that no one had drowned her at birth for her unusual appearance. “There is plenty in a farmer’s life that could be optimised.”
There were so many things that had been changed or that were yet to be, but had potential. “This year I came up with better isolation for the roofs and walls of our houses and cooling sheds. A mixture of fluffed up wool, hay and reed in a wooden construction. As of right now, I am pressing for a new water system. There could finally be running water in every home and a better irrigation systems for the fields. The wells and channels we are currently using are old and impractical for the distribution of our fields.”
Tobirama threw him a glance and was surprised to find that Madara was already looking at her holding her gaze. She knew this path by heart, would find it blind and drunk on apple wine, but under Madara’s interested eyes she found herself looking forward and mustering the ground. “But the elders are too set on how things have always been done to promote a reasonable change.”
“It seems, some things are universal no matter the setting.” Madara sighed and Tobirama was unsure what to think of the thoughtful glances he kept throwing her. Maybe she should have found it uncomfortable, especially since his expression was as closed off as it had been since they met, but his voice lacked a distinct waver of hostility and something in her gaze must have betrayed her cautiousness. He groaned and explained. “I face a similar problem. With an outdated generation holding back advances that is. You make it sound like you have the knowledge to see those plans of yours through successfully, though.”
Tobirama could not stop the laughter that erupted. “If only my neighbours thought the same way. Most find me peculiar without these seemingly outlandish propositions.”
Half of her village’s adults could not read or write and had never left the village further than the valley city’s market space. To explain the advantages of a system she had planned after those used in the main city by reading about it had proven fruitless over and over again. “I try to read up on it as much as I can, but my resources are limited and I don’t get to the city often enough to use the public library regularly. I do not want to bore you with details.”
“Oh, please do.” Bewildered she looked at Madara, but his gaze had opened more and he was looking at her with earnest interest.
“I’m being honest. As I said, there is a problem I’m facing similar to yours and maybe hearing the way you plan to solve your problem will lend me some insight and a different perspective.” It was a surprisingly nice and considering way to think about a problem.
Tobirama huffed bitterly amused anyway. “Well, you might have to bear with some unpractised explanations. I rarely get to discuss any of this with anyone but myself and few like to listen when I ramble.” She would have lost her brothers already. They rarely indulged her in listening to her rants.
Madara only waved his hand in a motion to suggest she should continue her explanation
“The main problem up till now is a limited number of literature, so I came up with plenty of answers on the ‘how’ by testing and thinking in hypotheticals and careful calculations...”
Tobirama started into a detailed explanation of the careful planning she had conducted, the testing of sternness of different clay pipes. There were few different recounts and papers she had found on water systems and even fewer went into detail about the calculation of pressure and distribution problems and how to preserve it as clean and fresh as possible.
The problem of her elders and more so the reservation of the rest of her neighbours was a difficult topic of its own. Tobirama tried to deal with it with clean transparency and patiently explaining things over and over again, but never in detail, always only the interesting aspects.
She only realised that she had held her monologue for the entire way from the first mossy boulder where the way parted to the old twin Urke-trees as they passed them.
Tobirama felt her face turning hotter and glanced to Madara who had inclined his head towards her. Even while his eyes scanned the ground for good footing, he seemed to listen intently.
“I didn’t realise life in a village could be quite so… scientific.”
“Well it only seemed logical to try to make things we are doing as optimal as possible. Anything else would be a waste of time, resources and health.”
“So, what else to you optimise?” He sounded almost amused, teasing like Kawarama sometimes talked when father wasn’t around.
“Selective crossbreeding I assume?”
She hummed in affirmation. “I started doing so three years ago and so far it has been successful.”
And it had baffled their elders who did not follow her explanations on genetic material, but then again, she only knew about it because she dedicated the cold winter months to excessive reading of all sorts, mostly scientific findings. She had of course tried to replicate some of them with pea plants who sprouted fast and could have distinctive characteristics. It had taken her months and plenty of patience and peas.
She nodded. “Yes, but the coming years will tell whether that was coincidence or unrelated influences.”
“How do you use it?”
He really wanted her to go into detail. “For example, our orchards habitat individual trees that consistently carry more fruit and of those, some get fewer mites. It’s a somewhat lengthy process, it works better with rice and vegetables, but same as with animals, we are crossbreeding only those that carry the traits we desire. There is this collection of papers by Mirosh Tetsuo - I believe he researches in the main city - that explains the biological background of cultivated plants. He is referring to some other papers that I have no access to, so it is hard to understand certain passages, but easy enough to see and explain the benefits of this cultivation.”
“That certainly must be your biggest accomplishment so far.” He honestly sounded impressed.
Tobirama shook her head. “No, that I would consider that I successfully pushed for a basic schooling of our village’s children, boys and girls.”
“That needed to be pushed for?”
“It was a process that took the better half of the last year to see through.” And it had made her angry for the longest time. “My elder brother and I were privileged enough to be taught by our mother during breakfast and after dinner for years, otherwise, I too, would not be able to read or write.” And what a sad life that would have been. “I taught my younger brothers after our mother’s death.”
Madara grew silent.
Tobirama was not sure whether she had said to much, maybe breached a topic indecent to talk about. “I am sorry, it must be boring to listen to.”
His head wiped up so fast, Tobirama could feel whiplash in her own neck out of sympathy and for the first time his expression had softened. “No, not at all. These are things to think about. As for the papers… you should talk to the librarian at the university’s library. She could get a hold of a copy for you.”
She tried to hide her cringing by turning towards the bushes they past to grasp a couple of berries, ripe and eatable. “Ah… I don’t have access to the university’s library.”
The sound of him stumbling had her turn back, but he had already caught himself again and was out right staring at her. “You don’t have access to the university’s library? How the hell do you harbour so much knowledge then?”
As she shrugged, her bewilderment had him laugh. “Well, then it should be granted to you. Aside from that… you’re determination is admirable.”
Tobirama felt her face heating up. “We… cannot afford a library pass. One of my village’s newer inhabitants used to live in the main city though, he has a lot of books.”
Madara’s eyes nearly pop out. “Five Alnas a month is too expensive?”
Tobirama threw him a look that was utterly unimpressed. “For a farmer’s child with three brothers and neighbours to look after and livestock to feed and a winter to prepare for… well, a library pass would be wasted on someone like me. We could feet another belly with the same amount if invested in rice.”
“You´re using so many sophisticated words and to me, it seems like you are more invested in your studies then most of my fellow students so surely it would be a greater loss for all of us if your dedication remained without proper nurturing.” Madara’s cheeks turned red and Tobirama was not sure if it was from walking or embarrassment. “Just imagine how many things greater than a village’s irrigation system you could develop with proper education?”
If possible, Tobirama’s face felt even hotter. She really didn’t want to argue with someone that held her in such high regard and had known her for less than a day, but she felt the urgency to express herself better. “I mean, it is unlikely I will ever have the means to leave this village. And even if I could… to trade a life as a farmer for the life as a… I don’t even know what else I could possibly amount to. And I would not want to leave my brothers in such a way.”
Aside, she was a woman and that made it significantly more difficult to achieve anything in their current society. She could move to Kusa, equality there was more important and sought after. She was lucky her father had left her alone with propositions of marriage so far. Surely her undesirable exterior made it hard to find a man willing to take her anyway, but that was something she was extremely grateful for. Madara simply stared at her until Tobirama grew uneasy and started to twitch under his watchful eye.
They walked in companionable silence, crossing the first of several streams and watching Amaterasu drink. Tobirama loosened her own drinking pouch and offered it to Madara first. The path grew broader and soon enough they could walk alongside each other comfortably on the trail.
When Madara stopped to admire the view of the city through the trees, Tobirama had grown confident enough to ask the other questions in return. “What is it like to live in the city?”
“More crowded. Louder too.” Madara signed and glanced at Tobirama who remained silent even though this did not really answered anything beyond what she had already assumed.
“I don’t really know any other life, but I guess I do less physical work and more… thinking. Or reading and talking.” His hands were covered in gloves, but as he took them off to wash they revealed skin just as clean and smooth as his face. If his fingers hadn’t been so long and his hands big and masculine, one could have taken them for a trophy-wife’s. Tobirama was sure, he had never held a broom in his life.
“My family… I guess you can call it a family business and there is plenty to learn to take over after my father. In a way, I study at the University in the main city, but I rarely have the time to attend lectures. I cannot tell you more without sparking my father’s rage.” Madara threw her a glance. “But whenever I have free time I fly my hawks and take Amaterasu out for a sprint.”
“I thought you were closer to my age.” The trees had gotten bigger and the undergrowth of the forest thicker, she should definitely check for mushrooms next time she passed.
Madara frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I will be sixteen in less than six moon circles, but you are already at university.” Not that their system was advanced enough to set certain ages or a universal education level to regulate the entrance, but that was nothing she should dwell on longer than necessary. University may be partial financed by the King’s funds for every student, but it was nothing ever possible for her.
“The entrance for university in the main city is not yet standardised, most start attending after they finished their schooling, but technically someone with enough thrive could enter earlier, like I did. But you’re right, I’ll turn nineteen before the end of this year.”
Tobirama nodded. They crossed another stream whose banks were covered in berry bushes. The Taletus-shrub was already bearing fruits. She washed some and shared them with Madara who was surprised by their sweet and earthy flavour. At her insistence he pulled of his gloves to not have the delicate leather covered in staying, sticky juice. Soon enough, they both were bend down to collected them until their hands were stained purple and four wheat-boxes were filled.
“My elder brother likes to make sweet bread with these as a mousse filling. It’s really good. Sometimes he uses the juice to dye rice buns.” The boxes fit into her carrier basket, but only just.
“This colour is so close to royal purple.” Madara sounded really interested.
“The berry’s juice can be used to dye fabric too, but we would obviously never dare to use it for that.”
They washed their hands, but some of the staining remained, which Tobirama was used to. Her hands rarely were their natural skin colour, but were either brown with dirt or tea stains, green with grass, yellow or orange with vegetable juices. Madara however, seemed utterly baffled and held them against the filtered sun beams to take in their new colour.
“How long till it washes out?”
“Two or three days at most. Only one if you have soap and wash them often.”
“My companion is going to think I got into a fist fight if he sees this.” Oh, and he smirked with utmost mischief that it froze Tobirama in her motion to watch his eyes glisten and his lips curl.
Had she been with any less restrain, she would have probably stared longer. Like this, she backed her basket and made her way out of the mud of the riverbed. “Good soap might be able to get rid of it faster.”
From there on the forest’s vegetation got more divers and denser too. Amaterasu’s expressive ears alerted them to another animal’s presence before they themselves saw it. In the distance, deer and wild geese bolted shortly after.
It was midday when they reached the forest’s edge. Tobirama had lead them not towards the village but further down the main road to the city. The cobbled road was empty and would remain so until Madara reached the bigger village at the mountain’s foot. They stopped right behind the last trees, still hidden from the road by thick greenery.
“With Amaterasu, it should take you less than two hours from now on. If you follow the road and not wander off into the wilderness, of course.”
Madara threw her a very unimpressed expression, but nodded anyway. “Thank you. As I said, I will repay you for your kindness.” He handed her the bag of laundry.
“And as I already said, it is not needed.” But a small smile tucked at her lips in amusement.
“But appreciated, I hope. Aside from that…” Madara retracted his gaze. “I enjoyed your company and would not mind to endure it once more, were I to bring my gift to you personally.”
“Oh.” Tobirama’s face felt warmer now. That, she had not expected and she was poorly prepared for the twitch of joy settling in her chest. “If the weather holds, I could meet you here at dawn in two days’ time.” The road was not dangerous for men, not even in the dark. Aside from Senju’s and other relatives, no one came along this path past the village in the valley and on a horse as high and impressive as Amaterasu he would not be endangered anyway.
Madara nodded. “Very well.” Then he pulled the leather saddle’s girth tighter. He did not yet pull himself up onto Amaterasu’s back however, but turned to Tobirama and caught her gaze. “So, what do you wish for? It can be anything I can get in the city or the neighbouring towns.”
“Something useful.” It was not really her place to make demands, but if he was going to bring her something she wanted to make sure it would be something she could appreciate. “Preferably no clothing or décor.”
Madara huffed a short laughter. “I got to understand you well enough to know that much myself.” His gaze drifted towards the road. “Don’t worry. I have something in mind that should appeal to you.”
Tobirama nodded and allowed a small smile to soften her usual sturdy expression. Madara returned a smile and as he turned to mount his horse, Tobirama stepped back to give him more room.
He made it seem easy. One hand firm in the horse’s mane one in the back of the leather saddle and as natural as breathing he all but ascended onto her back. Amaterasu didn’t even need to shift to accommodate his weight.
It sure was an impressive sight. Madara, pitch black hair bound by a leather band wavering with the soft wind behind his back like a war flag and even the dirt stains on his fine clothing did not deter from the way they fell around his already broad shoulders, looked almost regal in his proud posture high up on Amaterasu. And as high up as he was now, he would certainly have to duck under branches.
Tobirama had never looked twice at anyone. Most of her peers were related to her, even though it was common enough for distant cousins to marry, they simply did not interest her beyond an everyday conversation. So, the heat in her cheeks and lower abdomen was new and uncomfortable, because it beckoned her to shuffle closer which she would definitely not even attempt to do.
So she turned her gaze to check on her footing and went ahead towards the road. The sound of hooves softened on mossy grass told her that Madara stirred Amaterasu to follow. “I guess this is farewell for now.”
Tobirama turned. “I shell see you in two days’ time. And don’t be late.” She would have to find a way to cover for her disappearance without telling her father that she was meeting a man in private.
“I won’t.” He sounded so sure of himself that Tobirama was inclined to believe that he meant it.
“If it rains…”
Madara interrupted her. “I shall come anyway and you can lead us to some kind of shelter.”
“I will think of something then.” Tobirama smirked. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Their eyes caught once more and then Amaterasu turned and threw her head, twitched expectantly and Madara laughed at her eagerness, but tightened her reins and she immediately fell into a soft canter. Tobirama watched till they vanished around the next bend and the forest swallowed them.
Then she turned and made her way up to the village and home.
Tobirama saw Kawarama high atop the neighbour’s roof as she passed through the village. He greeted her with a waving wooden hammer.
“Have you had lunch already?” She asked.
He shook his head. “Let me come down and we can go home together.” His light brown hair was messy and dusty, there was some kind of oil on his cheek and the grin he wore spelt playfulness all over. Tobirama waited for him to slide down the shingles and jump down the ledge even though there was a ladder not two meters to his right.
“Do you want help with that?” He gesticulates to the full basket on her back, but she only shook her head. Tobirama was tall for a girl her age, but Kawarama had caught up to her already despite being two years younger. He had followed Hashirama onto the path of tallness and so far all signs showed Itama doing so too.
“Kanae and some of the elders asked for you. They did not tell me why though.” He swung his hammer as they fell into fast pace to meander along the trail leading to their front door.
“They will have to wait till after lunch.”
“Hashi promised to make Udon.”
“So he was feeling better?” That would be good news.
“As far as I know he kept down the oats and his tea.”
Kawarama wanted to add something but father’s and Hashirama’s raised voices from their kitchen silenced him. Tobirama dropped the basket at the entrance and signalled for Kawarama to stay outside, which he looked like he preferred anyway.
It happened often enough. Father’s rage was something easily stirred and hard to settle. And Hashirama’s carelessness often enough provoked an explosion.
Tobirama went in silently, keeping close to the wall and glancing around the corner. Hashirama was close to the opened back door, Itama already behind his back. From where she stood, close to the opened front door, she could see a set of small muddy foot prints on the kitchen floor and could guess what had happened.
Hashirama was taller than father, but still Tobirama felt a pang of fear as the man stormed towards her brothers, but Itama had already disappeared and Hashirama closed the door and fled too. Right as her father screamed after them, Tobirama snatched a sack of filled buns from the shelf and disappeared out the front door again, snatching Kawarama and pulling him to follow Hashirama and Itama.
They met at the river’s bank, Itama sulking on a boulder above the water and Hashirama flipping stones. Father seldom went after them and so far had never found them here at their hideout even when he did.
“Here.” Tobirama dropped the sack of buns on a dry stone plate and caught Itama who slid down the boulder’s side.
“Why were you screaming?” Kawarama settled and grabbed a bun.
There was always something for father to scream at and it was never predictable. Some days something like breathing could set him off, but other days he would ignore them all together. Every time he emerged, Tobirama only hoped he was not already in foul mood. If he was, she had Hashirama hide the knives and send Itama and Kawarama outside to stay out of his way.
Itama sat close to Hashirama and stared at the pebbles beneath his toes. “I forgot to clean my feet after picking the vegetables and made the kitchen floor dirty.”
“Father is as pleasant as a box of rotten eggs.” Hashirama groaned and pouted. “I wish I could take you with me to the city.” That had Itama freeze and Kawarama lower his bun. It was something their younger brothers often suppressed the thought off. When Hashirama had taken the position in the city’s pharmacy he had already set up his mind to leave eventually. That he met a girl and fell in love had only accelerated what had already been set into motion.
“I really want to go with you.” Itama sniffled and buried his face more in Hashirama’s clothing.
“I don’t understand why you have to leave at all.” Kawarama sounded sour.
“Kawarama.” Tobirama looked at him warningly. They had had conversations like this several times already. Hashirama would wed Mito at the end of harvest and leave for the city. It was something they were all conflicted about, Hashirama himself the most, but that was for the better in the long run. They would manage without him.
Mito was a scholar’s daughter of Hashirama’s age. When Tobirama had first met her, she was impressed and envious, because Mito not only had been allowed to go to school, but to university too. She was the closest to freedom Tobirama had ever seen a woman. So close to an equal to men, because her father had only allowed the marriage between Hashirama and her after Hashirama had guaranteed she would be able to continue her work as a translator and not caged at the stove.
Hashirama was not that kind of a man anyway. Too soft hearted and fierce in his love to even try stifle her growth and Mito most certainly was more witted nad cunning than him.
Together, Mito and Hashirama would make good money, enough to buy a small house and send two or three of their future children to school. Not enough to support two brothers and a sister additionally. Definitely not enough to buy their freedom from their father, who was still pater domum and everyone but Hashirama part of his household.
So Tobirama, Kawarama and Itama would remain and she knew Hashirama felt guilty for it. Tobirama had seen it in his expression, when he first told them that he could not stop thinking about this girl and it had remerged whenever the topic came up.
Tobirama took the sack, gave Itama and Hashirama a bun each and took one herself, before slipping free from her sandales. “Let’s go swimming.”
The look she gave her brothers was as good as a spoke incentive in changing the topic. Hashirama was the first to stand and strip, followed by Itama and only as the three of them were entering the water did Kawarama undress too.