Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto.

Author's notes: This story is set during the second Sino-Japanese war, part of WWII. It was inspired in part by the novels of Pearl S. Buck, and the recent Turner Classic Movies Asian film festival. The idea, however, is my own.

I am having to do quite a bit of research for this, and while I hope to keep it historically accurate, that may not happen. I apologize for any mistakes made and I truly hope I do not offend anyone. The views in this story are only those that were prevalent during the time, and are not my own.

The Hardest Journey

They make camp at dusk, the war-hardened leader of the band choosing a relatively flat spot between three of the low rolling hills that characterize this southern country. A low moan sets up from the battle weary guerillas, for the ground here is soggy and most certainly mosquito filled, but their commander remains firm. The protection offered by the surrounding high land far outweighs the troops' discomfort, or the risk of malaria. Orders are given, sentries are posted, and cold rations are quickly distributed.

Zhu Tenten is the group's only female, save for old Mei, the commander's wife who does the cooking during those scant few nights when fires are allowed. Desperate for some privacy, the young woman wanders a short distance away from the general mass and picks a fairly dry spot behind some scraggly bushes on which to spend the night. Although she longs to fall to the spongy earth and sleep like some of her compatriots, she is by nature an orderly soul, and begins to clear the area for her scant bedding.

A sharp stick, unseen in the fading light, jabs up through the too-thin sole of her boot and into the soft flesh of her right foot. She muffles the cry and blinks back the tears which threaten to spill from her brown eyes, unwilling to appear weak in front of anyone who might still be watching. A number of the men already feel she should not be here, that women are too frail to endure these hardships. They would like nothing more than to send her away, or leave her by the roadside. She will not give them the satisfaction of doing so.

Kicking the injured appendage out in front of her, Tenten plops down onto the ground, heedless of the damp dirt staining her plain, homespun pants. The girl gingerly pulls off the worn boot, wincing as its removal knocks the thin stick embedded like a stake into her foot. Gripping the sharp twig between her strong fingers, she tugs quickly and is rewarded when the whole thing slides out, leaving no splinters behind.

A wave of intense pain washes over Tenten, momentarily robbing her of the ability to think. She breathes deeply through her nose, one breath at a time, and after a while the agony lessens, her mind clearing. It is then that the young woman realizes she has a dilemma; her poor foot is bleeding, the wound dirty and in danger of becoming infected. She has no bandages and, after so long without being re-supplied, it is unlikely that any of her comrades can or will accommodate her. She will have to improvise.

What to use? What to use?

After a long moment of indecision, she takes her tattered woolen blanket and unwinds it from about her shoulders. The nights down here are warm, and days almost unbearably hot, so she will no longer need it for survival. Not that the ragged garment- full of holes and faded to an indescribable color- would offer much protection from the elements anyway. Still, the thing has a certain sentimental value, having made it all the way from Nanking with her. With the exception of her knife, it is the last element left of her life from… before…

Her right foot throbs in time with her heartbeat, and this strange and uncomfortable pulsation dispels her tarnished remembrances and reminds her of the need to be practical. Taking her small blade from the cracked leather sheath hidden at her waist, Tenten begins to cut the dingy coverlet into long strips, each one about an inch wide. Many years of working with the sharp tool have made her dextrous, and she soon has a good pile of makeshift bandages lying in her lap. Now she can dress the wound properly.

Taking her battered metal canteen from her shoulders, she unscrews the top and empties most of its contents onto her foot. The cool water dribbles over the injury, cleaning and soothing the torn skin. After using the rest of the precious liquid to wash the dirty dressings, Tenten squeezes the water from the strips and begins to wrap them methodically around her punctured appendage, knotting them wherever it is necessary and all the while hoping that she will still be able to march in the morning.

Half of her ersatz bandages have been used when a new worry occurs to Tenten: what if her foot should swell during the night, and in the morning she finds herself unable to put her boots on? Without the minor shielding offered by the footwear, she will be unable to keep up with her companions, and they will leave her behind, abandoning her to fate and the ever advancing Imperial Japanese Army. The thought is so frightening that the girl grits her teeth and shoves the aching foot back into her worn out shoe.

To her momentary delight- and one of the few she has had in a long time- the extra space in the oversized shoes is now taken up by the new dressings. Furthermore, the padding eases the rubbing upon her numerous blisters, and should take some of the shock from her steps when walking. Pulling the left foot from its far too-large prison, she begins to wrap it also.

Thank goodness Sun Yat-sen abolished foot binding.

The thought flashes happily through her head, darting about like a swallow before nesting permanently and conjuring up one patinated image: the recollection of her honored paternal grandmother tottering around on tiny, eternally deformed feet brings a fresh surge of grief to Tenten's heart. More memories, more than a decade old and half-forgotten, follow. They pile one on top of another, the good and the bad mixing in a kaleidoscopic whirl and threatening to overwhelm her. She struggles with them for a long while.

The sun sinks away into the sky's western quadrant, falling slowly behind the high verdant mountains and throwing the guerilla's bivouac into indigo shadows. The greatly-maligned mosquitoes begin swarming then, their high-pitched whines mixing with the deeper hum of the cicadas, and the gentle rushing of a stream can barely be heard to the east. The beautiful scene and the peaceful sounds, combined with the quiet speech of the men somewhere behind her, act as a soothing balm to the young woman's tortured soul.

Tenten allows her benumbed mind to drift as her deft hands continue their task, and in this state of near-meditation a number of questions arise: Where, exactly, is their group camped? How many years has it been since she left home and Nanking? What has become of the all the people she loves? When, if ever, will this cruel war be over? All of the queries are doomed to prove unanswerable, but the girl continues to pour over them anyway, even after her left foot is completely wrapped and returned to its shoe.

Time passes and the sun sets, vanishing over the undulating horizon with one final defiant blaze of light. With its last gleaming, a realization hits Tenten, and this new awareness is so sudden and powerful that she feels her heart turn over painfully inside her chest. The hot, traitorous tears well up again, brought to being because another long day has been wasted,and one more chance to find her war torn family has been lost. Here in this small encampment, surrounded by forty men and one odd woman, she is utterly alone and uncared for.

Oh, Uncle Gai!

Cousin Lee, where are you?

A man stumbles out of the darkness to stand next to her shrub, one big hand reaching inside his filthy pants to fumble with his genitals. Realizing that he intends to relieve himself right over her bed, a horrified Tenten dashes the remaining tears away and stands up, knife clutched surreptitiously in one hand. Although the prospects of this conversation leave her feeling anything but, the teenager forces her voice to sound loud and confident. "Excuse me, but you need to go do that somewhere else."

The man, a provincial farmer turned fighter named Deng, blinks his black eyes several times and squints at her in the dim lighting. "What're you doing way out here, girlie? It's not safe." He wobbles unsteadily on his feet, obviously not quite awake. Despite that handicap, Deng is a large man, capable of incredible power. Tenten feels slightly threatened, and she tightens her hand on her knife. Deng yawns and lets go of himself, but does not notice the weapon. "Little girls like you should be in bed by now."

"This is my bed," Tenten stresses, gesturing impatiently to the plain ground at her feet. "And I would like to go to sleep now, if you don't mind."

"Pipe down!" An unseen someone calls out from the relaxing group behind the two, sounding both sleepy and irritated. A few more voices take offense at this first, adding to the clamor, and then old Mei wakes with a frightened shout and asks if the fearful Japanese are upon them. Her husband orders everyone to shut up, his ancient voice carrying surprisingly well in the night air, but it is a long moment before the world is quiet once more, with only the usual cacophony of insect noises in the background.

Deng snorts and waves his hand at her vaguely before shuffling on by, heading in the general direction of the sound of the river. Tenten heaves a long sigh of relief, knowing she has once again escaped the dangers posed by her male comrades. The tension slowly ebbs from her body, leaving only weariness in its place. She flops back down against the softness of the earth and pulls a face, hoping that Deng does not urinate in the nearby body of water. She will have to fill her empty canteen in the morning.

The knife goes back into its scratched leather sheath, within easy reach and safely concealed beneath her long-sleeved shirt. Tenten unwinds her brown hair from its traditional two chignons, letting it cascade in waves down her back. The thick mass hangs to her shoulder blades and is perhaps her only luxury now; in preparation for sleep, she quickly plaits it into two braids. After tying them off with strings, poor replacements for the silk ribbons she once owned, the girl lays down on her side and pillows her head upon her arms.

Deng shambles past her again, practically sleepwalking. Tenten watches him go, then glances with chocolate eyes up toward the heavens. It is an astonishingly clear night, myriad twinkling stars stretched across the blackness of sky. One or two of these dots move, and in the back of her mind the young woman knows that these are airplanes, perhaps even enemy scouts. Still, the night is dark, lit only by a sickle moon, and here in this little valley they are safe from view. There is no need to sound the alarm.

As her eyelids droop closed, Tenten wishes that the planes could be those of the Americans, come to drive the hated Japanese from her beautiful, shattered country.

Tenten is awakened sometime after midnight by the deepest feeling of unease. Her heart is beating rapidly, her throat is dry, and her very hair feels as though it is standing on end. Something is wrong. Around her, the warm night is still and silent, much the same as before she fell asleep, although the stars have shifted in the sky. As far as she can tell, nothing else is different, and yet the night has become somehow menacing. She lies there, motionless and half hidden under her sparse bush, trying to ascertain the cause.

Tenten is just about to write the entire incident off as her imagination when the sound of hurried footsteps reaches her ears, and a great form rears up out of the inky blackness. It dissolves quickly into three moving figures, the one in the center struggling vainly against two others. As she watches, the person on the left stumbles back, nearly stepping on her where she lies. "Hey, watch it!" she calls angrily, mistaking this for just another alcohol-induced dispute between men who are every bit as traumatized as she is.

"Sorry," mumbles the young man now squatting next to her, the one who nearly stepped on her. "This guy's giving us a little trouble." He throws her a quick grin that reminds her of her vanished cousin Lee, all shinning teeth and irrepressible joy, but she has no time to dwell on the impression. Tenten's dark eyes alight upon his arm, hanging by his side at a most unnatural angle, and the girl suddenly comprehends that this incident may be much more than the simple male disagreement she had thought it was.

That realization hits home when a voice in front of her swears quietly in Japanese. Tenten leaps to her feet, regardless of her tired body's protestations, her right hand flying instinctively for her knife. Bringing the weapon to bear, she strains her eyes toward the two men still fighting, trying to figure out which of them is her enemy. The young man next to her reaches out with his good arm, catching hold of her shaky hand. Terrified, it takes everything she has to keep from accidentally gutting him.

"It's alright," her comrade tells her, and his voice sounds rather thoughtful. "I won't let him hurt you." Tenten is about to reply that she cannot imagine him keeping her safe with a broken arm. She nearly snaps and tells him that there is no need for him to be concerned; she has killed men before, after all, and stabbing another will not cause her any more psychological damage. But then he points to the fight and says, "Don't worry, Ying's taking care of him. Look, he almost has him tied up now."

Peering through the gloom, Tenten can just make out a rope holding both of the Japanese man's wrists together, preventing him from swinging his arms in any way but a rough clubbing motion. Another cord has been thrown around his shoulders, and it is this one that Ying is attempting to tighten. As she watches, the enemy grabs a hold of Ying's shirt and drops into a fast spin, intending to fling the Chinese man away. When he turns toward her in the midst of his rotation, Tenten finally gets a good look at his face, and her world stops.

Oh, gods…

Tenten knows this man, although she never thought she would see him again. Certainly she had hoped never to see him again, not under these circumstances. To protect herself, and him, she should keep quiet. She ought to pretend she does not recognize him. But she is so shaken that she cannot, and his name falls from her lips like rain dropping from the sky. "Hizashi?"

The Japanese soldier, having flung Ying away, had been preparing to make a run for freedom. At the sound of Tenten's tremulous voice, however, he freezes in place before turning slowly to face her. Strange white eyes glint silver in the moonlight, and something in them suggests a pain every bit as fierce and acute as the young woman's own. His voice, when it comes, seems impossibly loud and more than a little desperate in the sudden silence of the night. In halting, broken Mandarin, he asks, "You know my father?"

To be continued…