There was reason to hope, but when they landed and approached the camp it was obviously empty.

“They weren’t attacked,” Kristoph confirmed. “There is nothing damaged. They appear to have taken their food and water supplies and continued on foot.”

Braxietel confirmed that guess, pointing out still visible footprints in the sand.

“There are more than five sets of prints here,” he added. “They were met by two people wearing soft coverings on their feet.”

Braxietel himself had pieces of soft leather tied around his feet as protection against the burning sand.

“Do you mean they met some of your people?” Malika Dúccesci asked. “Even so, why would they go with them?”

“To see the Northern Oracle?” Gynnell suggested. He was looking northwards. He put his hand to his forehead to shield his eyes and squinted. “Sir… I think… I think I can see….”

“Sweet mother of chaos,” his older brother swore as he looked where he was looking. They all looked. They blinked and stared, unable to believe what they were seeing.

“It’s the Oracle,” Gynnell said. “That’s what Lord Glasson said it looked like – a gateway in the desert. We’ve found it.”

“That wasn’t there before,” Malika said with complete conviction in his voice. The others agreed. The landscape had been empty until a few moments ago.

“A mirage?” Kristoph suggested. “But is it possible for us all to see the same image if that is so?”

“I have heard of such things,” Braxietel said. “We have stories told around the camp fire, or to amuse the children. But I have never seen such a thing with my own eyes before.”

The pilot said nothing. He turned and went back to the shuttle. The others looked around in surprise as it took off vertically ten metres or so and then shot forward towards the mirage. They watched it set down on the desert in front of the great castellated gateway that had appeared out of nowhere.

Then the gateway was gone. The shuttle was standing on an empty desert against a clear red-orange horizon. The best sighted of them all could make out the pilot next to the craft and then he got back in and it took off again, reversing in mid-air and returning to the camp.

Gynnell Dúccesci was the first to find a voice when his four school friends spilled out of the shuttle door. He ran to greet them and there was a moment of sheer joy as they hugged each other.

“I’ve contacted the other search parties,” the pilot said. “They’re heading back to the school.”

“We’ll do the same,” Kristoph answered. “Once the boys have had something to eat and drink and we’ve had something of an explanation for their appearance.”

It WAS the four missing boys. There was no doubt about that. But they looked more like Braxietel’s desert-dwellers, their hair long and tangled, the early signs of adolescent beards on their chins. They were dressed in animal skins and with tattoos of red all over their bodies.

Despite their appearance Hadric Poll, Benic Allassi, Merrick Karn and Westley Vern remembered their manners and all bowed formally when they recognised the Lord High President amongst their rescuers. Kristoph reminded them that they did not need to bow when he was not wearing the Sash of Rassilon and invited them to sit in the largest of the tents where their own food supplies awaited them. They fell upon the rehydrated food joyfully and with a surprising appetite.

“It is so long since we had processed food,” Westley explained. “We’ve been eating wild game for eight years.”

“Eight years?” Gynnell queried. “But you’ve only been missing for eight days.”

“It was eight years where we were,” Merrick explained.

“Where is Lord Glasson?” Kristoph asked, wondering why he had not thought to ask that question before. They had called off the search with a man still missing.

“He is well,” Hadric assured him. “But he chose to stay. We wanted to come home.”

“That is commendable,” Kristoph told them. “But I think we had better have the story from the beginning.”

“Lord Glasson led us to this campsite,” Merrick explained. “He said it was the place where the Oracle would appear. He said it would appear at daybreak on the next morning. We really didn’t believe him, but we rose before dawn and waited and….”

“And it appeared,” Benic said, the first words he had spoken since their reunion.

“It really did,” Hadric continued. “The gateway in the sand, as he promised. He said we should go to it.”

“Lord Glasson said that?” Malika Dúccesci asked in confirmation. “It was all his idea?” He glanced at Kristoph. They were both thinking the same thing. Why had their teacher led the boys towards something so strange and potentially dangerous.

Because it WAS strange and potentially dangerous, Kristoph thought. As a young man he would have done the same. As a boy, a herd of Pazithi wolves wouldn’t have stopped him from finding out more about something so amazing. Even if Glasson had told the boys to stay in camp, he couldn’t imagine them doing so. The spirit of adventure would have taken them over.

“We weren’t sure,” Hadric added. “Then we saw something else. Two men came out of the gate. They looked like….” He glanced at Braxietel. “They looked like him, only the tattoos were red, not blue. They spoke to Lord Glasson in a strange dialect. We only understood a few words of it. Most of it was garble. But Lord Glasson talked to them easily. Then he told us we were going to the gate with these men. He said we had to walk, because it wasn’t right to bring technology close to something ancient. So we walked, and the closer we got the more wonderful and the more real the gate looked. The towers were so tall and the archway between them so strong, so very solid. It looked as if it had stood for a thousand years. But we had seen it appear out of nowhere.”

“I didn’t want to go through,” Benic said. “But Lord Glasson insisted. And the others were interested. I didn’t want to be left behind. So I went with them. We all went through the gateway.”

“And on the other side….” Merric began, then stopped.

“On the other side… it was still Gallifrey,” Benic explained. “But it wasn’t OUR Gallifrey. I think it was a very long time ago. It was before the red moon broke up. It was night on the other side, though it was just after dawn when we saw the Oracle appear. Pazithi Gallifreya was in the sky, just as we’ve always known her, in her silver aspect. But there was the red moon, too. And the constellations were… I thought I recognised some of them… The Boatman, The Hunter, The Great Leonate, but they weren’t quite right. The Hunter had four extra stars across his swordbelt and The Boatman was stretched out more than I had seen before.”

“And there was grass beneath our feet,” Westley added. “We were standing on a fertile plain. There were trees on the horizon. Yet I am sure we were still in the same part of the planet – still on the Red Desert.”

“If we accept that the boys passed through an unknown time portal,” Malika Dúccesci proposed. “Then it is possible they emerged in a time long before the red moon was destroyed. Some of our historians have suggested that there was a time when the Red Desert was a well watered place where plants could grow. They have taken core samples and found ancient seeds deep beneath the sand.”

“We were scared,” Westley admitted. “We wanted to go back to the camp. But when we turned back, there was no gate. Lord Glasson was angry. He told us we were weak cowards who couldn’t face up to adventure. He told us we had to have more courage if we were to survive. Then he and the two men who met us… they brought us to a settlement, a camp… full of Outlanders.”

“I don’t think they WERE Outlanders the way we understand them,” Hadric corrected his friend. “If we were SO far back in time, then EVERYONE must have been Outlanders. There wouldn’t BE any cities, any civilisation as we know it. We knew there was no point trying to run away. All we would find is other tribes like that one.”

“Lord Glasson was known to them. He had been there before. He spoke to the elders in that same language. Then he told us that we might as well get used to it, because this was going to be our home from now on. We protested. We said we wanted to go back, but he was angry again. He said he had listened to us all talking in our dorms about Outlanders, wanting to meet them. He said this was what we wanted. But… we didn’t mean we wanted to live as Outlanders. We just wanted to….”

Again the four boys looked at Braxietel. Their expressions were something between awe and fear. He moved closer to them, touching Westley on the forearm.

“You have the marks of the Arrachii,” he said. “The lost tribe. There are legends among my people, about a group of Outlanders who travelled further and longer than any others. One season, four generations ago, they vanished altogether. They were last known to have ventured northwards, but other tribes who came from the tundra lands down into the desert saw nothing of them.”

“They found the Northern Oracle and went through,” Hadric said. “They talked of it… later, when we had learnt enough of the dialect to talk to the other in the tribe, we found out that – for them – the Oracle appears once every eight years, on the winter solstice day. Lord Glasson said that years on that side count as only days on this. He told us he had been visiting for a century, staying with the tribe through eight seasons but only being gone from his home in our time for a short time.”

“We realised we had no choice,” Merric said. “We couldn’t go home until the Oracle appeared again. We learnt to fit in with the tribe. We hunted for our food. We had to learn how to eat fresh meat cooked on a fire. At first it made us retch, but we got used to it. We worked, we ate, we slept with the tribe. They called us the ‘praurie’, the newcomers. We were still newcomers after eight years living through the seasons with them. And we knew we would never really belong. Besides, we never gave up hope that we would come home. We told Lord Glasson – Gavacoi as he was known to the tribe – that we would leave on the solstice.”

“He tried to talk us out of it. He said we had learnt well, that we were ready to be men of the tribe. We could take wives… there were girls, some of them beautiful. We could choose from them and live as men. If we went back, we would still be boys, still living in the camp under the Lord President’s penance. He offered us freedom.”

“No,” Benic said. “He offered us a different sort of prison, where we would never see our families, never go back to school, never get a chance to be Time Lords….”

“Never be boys again,” Merric added. “He thought being a man was the greatest thing we could hope for – that he was offering us something wonderful. But he wasn’t. We thought about it, talked about it between ourselves. But we’re not READY to be men, yet. We still WANT to be boys.”

“We’re not ready for the responsibilities of manhood,” Westley confirmed. “We want… to have nothing else to worry about except doing our homework to the standard Lord Artemus expects of us.”

“And so you should,” Kristoph assured them. “Glasson let you go willingly? He didn’t threaten to send men after you or anything of the sort?”

“He was disappointed. He thought we would have accepted his offer. But he didn’t stop us leaving.”

“Very well. You did the right thing, boys. I’m proud of you for making the choice intelligently. Rest a little more and then we’ll see about getting you back to your school. I am afraid you’re going to need long hard ion showers to remove those tattoos. And I am going to ask you to swear a solemn oath, in the name of Rassilon, never to share this story with any of your school friends. You, too, Gynnell. We will say that you were lost, and that Lord Glasson was badly injured and flown straight back to the Capitol. He won’t be returning to the school in the foreseeable future. Is that understood?”

The boys nodded. Kristoph made them swear the oath. He knew they would hold to it. He let them drink cool rehydrated juice a little longer before they helped to strike the camp and load everything into the shuttle.

On the way back, Kristoph put the same oath of secrecy upon the adults who had been on the rescue mission.

“We must do two things,” Kristoph said. “First, the region of the desert where the Oracle appeared must be declared a prohibited zone. I don’t want anyone else discovering its secret. There are good, sound reasons why we don’t allow time travel within Gallifrey’s own past. Secondly, Glasson must be arrested if he ever comes back through the Gateway. He especially cannot be allowed to lead any more boys astray. If he goes near the school camp I want him clapped in irons.”

“You don’t intend to pursue him through the Oracle?” Malika Dúccesci asked. “After all, he HAS broken the protocols against time travel on numerous occasions according to the witness the boys gave.”

“As long as he remains there, I am satisfied to leave him be,” Kristoph answered. “It is the easiest way to ensure the incident is forgotten. For now, let us make sure these boys are safely back in their camp among their friends, then we may return to our own homes and families. Marion has been very understanding in the circumstances, but I don’t wish to push my luck.”