“Choose your moment, boys,” Kristoph said again. “Rassilon guide your hands.”

There was a roar, and the swift movement of the animal leaping. Then a soft sound of something light but swift cutting through the air. The roar turned to a yelp of pain and the animal landed in an ungainly heap, bleeding from the wound straight through its heart fired from a well-aimed crossbow bolt.

Salika Goth gave a deep sigh of relief and dropped his arm. The crossbow, discharged, fell from his hands.

Gynnell Dúccesci was still holding his crossbow. It still had a bolt in the slide. Kristoph stepped forward and took it from him. He fired the bolt into the sand before picking up the weapon Salika had dropped. He passed them both to Riven and asked him to put them back with the others.

“Good job, boys,” he said to them both. “It’s a desert leonate, a big one. It could have – would have - killed you if you hadn’t fired. I wasn’t going to teach you this until tomorrow, but as we have fresh meat – and leonate steaks are surprisingly tasty, you might as well learn how it’s done.”

The boys were all stunned by the suddenness of what had happened, and the idea that Kristoph was just going to cut meat from the dead animal – meat that he seemed to be suggesting they should eat – was a little shocking. But Riven and Adred, when called upon to assist, adapted quickly to using a sharp knife to cut through the fur and skin and reach the flesh beneath.

“That will do,” he said after a while. “If we were living off the land for more than a couple of days there would be a lot more meat we could cut from the carcass, but this will do for a fresh steak each tonight and some to wrap up and keep for tomorrow night’s meal. Riven, come with me now. We’re going to take the rest of the carcass and leave it well away from our camp. Any other predators will be attracted to the smell of the blood and the chance of an easy meal and leave us alone.”

When that was done, he showed them how to cook steaks on an open fire. The smell of the meat cooking, to say nothing of the taste when they were done, was an entirely new experience for them. None of the boys had ever eaten real meat before. Even in the desert camp where they lived now, their food was mostly processed. Despite being slightly horrified by the circumstances they found themselves enjoying the unexpected late supper.

At least five of them did. Kristoph watched the sixth boy make a pretence of appreciating his food. He was worried. Kristoph thought he knew why. But he couldn’t speak to him in front of the others. It would have to wait.

Kristoph stoked the fire up before they all retired to the tent and the comfort of their bedrolls. Within a short time most of the boys had gone to sleep. One hadn’t.

“I know what’s worrying you,” Kristoph said to him. “Let’s take a walk around the oasis, where your friends won’t hear.”

Gynnell Dúccesci stood quietly and followed Kristoph out of the tent. He walked beside him without talking until they were well out of earshot of the others.

“You froze,” Kristoph said. “You couldn’t pull that trigger.”

“Yes, sir,” Gynnell admitted.

“For what it’s worth, your friends don’t know. I fired the bolt into the sand and gave two discharged weapons to Riven to put away.”

“But you know.”

“I know a great many things that I am sworn never to tell another living soul,” Kristoph replied. “It goes with my job. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want them to know. But that’s not the problem, is it?”


“Why do you think you couldn’t shoot the leonate?”

“It just felt wrong… pointing a weapon at a living thing,” Gynnell replied. “I know it was dangerous. It could have killed either me or Salika. But I couldn’t do it. When he fired first, and killed the creature, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do it. I’m glad our lives didn’t depend on me.”

“You don’t like killing?”


“Have you always felt that way, or only since you tried presidential assassination as a career?”

“Sir… please!” Gynnell’s voice was pained. Kristoph knew it was a cruel question to ask him, but it needed to be asked.

“Come here, son,” Kristoph said. He grasped the boy’s hands and pressed them against his own chest. “Both hearts are working fine. The damaged one has grown back. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it’s over. You don’t need to feel guilty about it anymore. You can look me in the eye – at least when I’m not wearing the Sash of Rassilon and you’re too busy bowing and avoiding eye contact – and feel no shame.”

“I will always feel that shame. I almost killed you, sir.”

“No, you won’t.” Kristoph touched him on the forehead and gently reached into his mind. There was such a confusion of emotions it was hard to believe he was a Time Lord in the making. He was far from the stoic, logical man he ought to grow up to be.

Kristoph found the tightest knot of all, the guilt he felt for what he had done. He couldn’t erase the memory. For good or ill the boy had to be aware of all that took place. He needed to know that what he did was wrong. But he didn’t have to eat himself up inside with self-recrimination. Kristoph slowly helped to unravel that knot and help him to see that he didn’t have to be ashamed any more and accept that he had been forgiven by the one man above all who could forgive him.

“Sir… thank you,” Gynnell said in a choked voice. “And… no, I have never liked killing.”

“What Khane made you do was even crueller than it seemed, making you act so completely against your nature.”

“I’m not a coward,” Gynnell insisted.

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” Kristoph assured him. “Nor would anyone else who knew the truth. A coward WOULD have fired the bolt, probably too soon and wildly. You stood your ground. There’s no lack of courage in you.”

“I just don’t want to kill,” Gynnell added.

“Then it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that you’re not put in a position where you have to kill,” Kristoph answered him. “On this trip, you’re in charge of ground fruit gathering and water bottle filling. We’ll leave the hunting and killing to Salika and Riven.”

“Thank you, sir,” Gynnell said. “When we were talking earlier… about careers…. If it was a choice between the Celestial Intervention Agency and the Brotherhood… I think I would choose Contemplation.”

“You stick by that idea, son,” Kristoph said. “And you won’t go far wrong. Even the Brothers occasionally eat roasted goat, though. There’s nothing wrong with that. So don’t deny yourself a good leonate steak when the only alternative is ground fruits.”

“I won’t, sir,” Gynnell promised.

“Good,” Kristoph told him. “Come on, now. Let’s get back to the tent before either of us are missed.”

They walked the long way around the oasis. Now that the anxiety had been cleared up Gynnell enjoyed the walk. He listened to the sounds of insects in the sand, a bird of prey somewhere in the sky overhead, the soft bubbling sound of the water that continuously fed into the oasis from an aquifer deep beneath the bedrock of the desert.

“Can you hear that?” Gynnell asked. “That other sound.”

“No,” Kristoph answered. “What sort of sound?”

“It’s… a quiet sound… quieter than anything else around here. I can hear the boys breathing in their sleep over there in the tent. But there’s something else. I don’t know what it is…. It’s not dangerous. It’s….”

He looked down. There was dry sand beneath his feet, but not far away the sand was moist with oasis water, and ground fruits grew in abundance.

“It’s them,” he said. “I can hear them growing.”

Kristoph couldn’t hear anything like that. But he fully believed that the boy could.

“I think a life of Contemplation very well may be your destiny, Gynnell. The Brothers have been known to sit in meditation watching flowers bloom. But I don’t think any of them have ever heard a plant growing before.”

“I couldn’t do it before. I was too wound up and worried. I think I’m all right, now.”

“I think so, too.”

The boy slept easily when he returned to the tent. Kristoph lay awake a little longer listening to them softly breathing. He was satisfied with Gynnell’s progress. He had gone through such a lot, but it was over now. His demons were purged and he was ready to face his future without fear.

And it would be a good future. Kristoph was sure of that, too. Gynnell Dúccesci was meant for a life of Contemplation. He could see it in him when the boy’s hands were over his hearts.

At least three others of these boys had destinies that were very much set in stone already. He had seen that, too. He thought his conscience was clear. He had done everything he could to avoid actively encouraging them, but two of these six youngsters WERE going to join the Celestial Intervention Agency when they were older. Salika Goth and Riven Maxic had the instincts for that life. Riven would need to curb his political fervour and learn to keep a cool head in a crisis, but that was all that was in the way of him being an outstanding agent.

Nico’s future was settled, too. The boy was going to grow up to rival the great Chrístõ Lún de Lœngbærrow as one of Gallifrey’s greatest astronomers. His mind was already virtually a star map. It was a passion that would gain him honour among the academics of Gallifrey.

The other two weren’t yet resolved in their ambitions. Their future was still an empty page to be written upon. And that was all right, too. They HAD a future. That was what mattered most.

The boys all slept late. The sun was well up when they emerged to find Kristoph raking back the ashes of the fire. He pulled out six plump parcels of blackened leaves. An enticing aroma came from them and when the boys opened the leaves they found some of the spare steaks from last night folded around ground fruits that had cooked and let their juices seep into the steaks, giving them a unique flavour. They ate that unusual breakfast in the shade of the trees by the oasis and watched the sun climbing higher.

“If we’re going to strike camp, we’d better do it soon,” Adred pointed out. “Or it will be too hot to walk.”

“We’re not striking camp,” Kristoph told them. “You did enough walking yesterday. Today is a holiday. You’ve got a crystal clear lake to swim in and ground fruits to eat at your leisure. Later, the last of the steaks will make a fine meal and we’ll sing songs and tell stories around the camp fire until we’re tired. Tomorrow, first thing, we’ll set off walking again, taking a wide circular route through Dark Territory, taking in the Great Omegan Escarpment, the Aeolian Depression and another oasis almost as glorious as this one to camp beside. And the next day we’ll make our way back to where we left my TARDIS and take an easy trip back to school.”

That plan suited everyone except young Adred, who risked the derision of his peers by admitting that he couldn’t swim and was mortally afraid of the deep oasis lake.

“No problem,” Kristoph told him. “I have all day to teach you to swim. My brother, the Gallifreyan Ambassador in the Ventura system was a late swimmer, too. But I sorted him out in one afternoon by the River Bærrow.”

Adred was doubtful, but Kristoph was proved right. By the end of the day the boy had learnt to swim well enough to join in the games the others were playing. Another job well done, he prided himself.