This had seemed such a lovely, romantic idea when they set out. Now, several hours later, it was starting to feel a little less enchanting. Walking up a narrow path that wound right around a mountain getting steeper and steeper by the minute was hard work. The path was mostly loose soil with little stones that worked their way into even the stoutest of walking boots. Those earnest young people who chose to go barefoot must have started suffering before the first official resting place.

“Let’s stop for a while here,” Kristoph said as they reached one of those places. Marion was grateful for that. She hadn’t said anything, but he had known that she was tiring.

She had tried not to be the weakest of their party. But after all, she was the only one who wasn’t Gallifreyan. She had only one heart and her lungs were not so well developed as those of her friends around her.

Nobody said anything, of course. They never did. Among her circle of close friends nobody ever treated her as less than them, as an invalid who had to be accommodated in their arrangements. Even though they DID accommodate her in many ways. When she was with her lady friends at the Conservatory or at luncheons or teas in their homes, she knew they spoke orally much more than they would if she wasn’t there. And when they were three quarters of a mile up a mountain and she needed to stop, those who could have gone on a bit longer were happy to take a break.

“So… remind me. Who’s idea was this, anyway?” Remonte de Lœngbærrow asked as they accepted cool glasses of water from the robed acolytes who catered for those who took the pilgrim trail of Gassib Bau. The water wasn’t merely for refreshment. It was drawn from the spring at the very head of the great river Bau, and it was supposed to cleanse the soul and free the mind from impure thoughts.

At the first resting place, Kristoph had carefully tasted a mouthful of the water without swallowing. He said it contained some unusual minerals, but none of them harmful. The water was stored in great earthenware jars that kept it as cool as it was when it sprang from the ground.

There was food, too. A kind of flat cakes made of some kind of grain. They tasted quite nice, though they were starting to get a little tedious by now. Again, there was a solemn purpose about cleansing the soul and purifying the mind and body.

“Do you think it really does that?” Marion asked as she nibbled at a cake and sipped the water while sitting gratefully on a cloth spread on the ground. “Cleanses the soul, purifies the mind and body…”

“No,” Jarod Hadandrox said quickly. “It’s just grain and water. It couldn’t do any of those things.”

Calliope giggled and blushed. She had not had a telepathic message from her husband, because there was a naturally occuring element in the rocks that suppressed such abilities. But the expression on his face was unmistakeable.

“It isn’t working on you, anyway,” Remonte de Lœngbærrow told him. “You’ve still got plenty of impure thoughts in your mind.”

“I’m not the only one, I’m sure!” Jarod protested. “Don’t tell me you don’t think your wife is the most lovely being on the planet?”

Since all three women were dressed in pale yellow blouses and long skirts that came down to their feet along with shawls that covered their heads, loveliness was a moot point. All the women on the pilgrimage trail looked like sisters of Contemplation who had eschewed physical pleasures.

“I don’t think it is impure when we’re legally married,” Rika pointed out. “I mean… before… when Remonte and I… but now…”

She broke off awkwardly, but they all understood what she meant. She and Remonte had been a scandal in the making when he had taken her as his mistress while still legally married to Idell. But now she was legally and properly Madame de Lœngbærrow, wife of the Gallifreyan vice-consul to Ventura and any thoughts her husband might have about her were his own business.

“I think we should regard this as a purifying ritual just like those we practice in our meditation rooms,” Kristoph said. “The taking of the food and water is symbolic of the cleansing of the mind. And it certainly won’t do our bodies any harm to eat ascetic food like this for a day.”

The other two men nodded, accepting his wisdom as the senior Time Lord of their party. They ate the food and drank the water and rested their feet at the last stage of the pilgrimage before reaching the plateau of the Great Guardian.

“Oh, let’s not move on just yet,” Rika said with a long sigh. “Marion is not the only one who is suffering from sore feet. And we’ll have the sun in our eyes once we get around the next section. Let’s wait a little longer.”

Marion wondered if she said that just to give her a bit more of a rest. If so, that was kind of her.

“Let’s have a look at all these sore feet,” Kristoph said. “Jarod, you’ve done your share of route marching. I’m sure you learnt the same tricks I did for when you made camp in the evening.”

“Yes,” Jarod responded. He knelt and reached to take his wife’s shoes off. Kristoph did the same for Marion. Remonte, the only one of them who hadn’t been in the Gallifreyan military corps, watched uncertainly before copying what his brother was doing.

It was a kind of massage combined with knowledge of pressure points as employed in Chinese acupuncture. Marion sighed happily as Kristoph gently manipulated her feet and the aching tiredness, the heat of walking, and even the soreness from treading on so many loose stones all day, dissipated. It was obviously working for Rika and Calliope, too.

“So…” she said. “When you two were soldiers, marching all day on some strange, alien world, and you stopped and made camp for the night… it was considered perfectly normal and natural, and MANLY to do this to each other?”

“You think this is something comrades in arms shouldn’t be doing?” Kristoph asked with an expression on his face best described as ‘inscrutable.’

“It seems more like something that should happen in the privacy of the bedroom between two lovers… as a prelude to… what I shouldn’t be thinking of around here in case it’s considered impure thoughts.”

Kristoph laughed. So did Jarod. They looked at each other and even without telepathy something passed between them – something that only old soldiers could possibly share.

“I can assure you,” Kristoph continued. “That the Gallifreyan Military Corps is made up of one hundred per cent celibate men who have no inappropriate feelings towards one another. Giving each other foot massages before making camp at night is a bond of trust and comradeship and nothing more.”

“I believe you,” Marion replied. She and the other two women laughed softly. Kristoph and Jarod feigned outrage at what was being impugned towards them as old soldiers, but not for long. Soon they joined in the laughter.

“That looks very pleasant,” said a deep masculine voice. “Any chance you could do it for me, old man!”

Kristoph looked around and smiled as he recognised his friend and colleague in the diplomatic circles of the galaxy, Hillary Dey Barr. He was dressed in the darker yellow robe that the men wore on the pilgrimage trail. Beside him was a woman who Marion didn’t recognise until she let the shawl down from her hair.

“Claudia Jean!” she exclaimed, forgetting that she was shoeless and not minding the rough ground beneath her feet at all as she hugged her Haolstromnian friend. “Oh, then you and Hillary have become… Oh, I am glad.”

“So am I, old man,” Kristoph said, kissing Hillary on his cheek before reaching to shake hands with Claudia Jean. She smiled warmly and reached to kiss him instead.

“Are you on the trail, too?” Marion asked as they came to sit and take water and cakes. “Do you really want to prove your true love?”

“It was my idea,” Claudia Jean said. “I heard about it from our mutual friend, Bertin Lassiter. He and Grady came here for a weekend and he said that passing through the portal was the most inspiring thing he had ever done.”

“Did he indeed?” Kristoph knelt in front of Hillary and gave him the same foot massage he had done for Marion. Hillary looked as if he was enjoying that thoroughly, and Marion thought it was a good thing that Haolstromnians never joined Gallifreyans in military campaigns or Kristoph’s claim that it was not a sensual experience when between comrades would be seriously compromised. When he was done, he did the same for Claudia Jean who enjoyed it just as much. Marion remembered that Haolstromnian gendermorphs, as part of their reputation as passionate lovers, exuded powerful pheromones that enhanced their enjoyment of sensual pleasures.

She also remembered that Gallifreyans were supposed to be immune to such charms. She wasn’t sure that was true, looking at Kristoph’s smile, but she was willing to forgive him. She loved Hillary and Claudia Jean, too. She was delighted to learn that they had become partners.

“I’m surprised that Bertin and Grady came here,” Remonte said. “I didn’t think the Portal worked for couples of their orientation. I’ve only seen male-female pairings on the pilgrimage up to now.”

“As I understand it,” Kristoph answered. “The ‘Guardian’ recognises true love in whatever form it takes. Male-female pairings are the most common among humanoid races, but that doesn’t make that the ‘norm’. You might as well say that those humanoids who have haemoglobin in their blood are the ‘norm’ and those of us who don’t are a deviancy from it. Bertin and Grady Lassiter are a life pair bond. Nobody and nothing could come between them.”

“What about Hillary and Claudia Jean, then?” Calliope asked. “Haolstromnians DON’T pair for life. Will the Portal reject them?”

Everyone looked at each other as if considering that question. Then Rika asked the question aloud that had occurred to them all.

“What happens to them if it does reject them?”