Gynnell poured a cup of coffee for the tribesman. He sat near the fire, the flickering glow casting odd shades and highlights on his tattooed face and torso, making the figures appear to dance upon his skin. He drank the coffee in silence for a while, savouring the taste as one who had not known it for a very long time.

“That was delicious,” he said. “My thanks.”

“Who are you?” Gynnell asked. “I mean, your name, sir.”

“Sir?” He smiled. “I haven’t been called that for a very long time, either. In the tribe of Faracchu I am known as Voron. The name I used when I lived under the false sky of the Capitol is long forgotten, I expect. You boys were not born, and your fathers were doubtless young men when I was last seen drinking coffee with ‘civilised’ company.”

Was he going to tell them what his true name was, what his House? The boys wondered about that and were a little disappointed that he did not start his tale there. The story he had promised to tell them was about how he came to be dying by the water of the oasis.

“Were you fighting the other man, sir?” Merrick asked, prompting him to begin. “You both had grievous wounds and weapons were found nearby.”

“Yes, I was fighting him,” Voron answered. “Though I regret that it came to such a pass. His name is Oron. The similarity of names is no coincidence. It was his father, Joron who gave me my tribal name when I first joined the Faracchu. We were as close as blood-born brothers.”

“I am sorry for that,” Merrick said. “My brother and I are sometimes at odds, but we would never come close to killing each other.”

“I never thought it possible that Oron and I could be so vexed with each other. But as you clearly saw, it was a fight to the death in the end.”

“What was the cause, sir?” Shill asked.

Voron laughed softly.

“You are all young, or you would have guessed. Only one thing can set two brothers against each other in such earnest. It had to be a woman.”

“A woman made you try to kill each other?” Shill asked with a puzzled and altogether innocent air in his voice. “Did she hate you? Did you hate her?”

Benic, who was clearly listening though he kept his distance, gave a harsh laugh. Merrick and Gynnell who had both made a guess shook their head at their friend.

“You both loved her, didn’t you?” Gynnell said.

“Her name is Suras. She is daughter to our tribal leader, Aras. He has no sons. His wife died in childbirth despite the ministrations of our wise woman and he has never taken another to his bed. Of course, tribal leadership is not inherited. When Aras is too old and infirm to lead, he will choose another. In all likelihood it would have been either Oron or myself. We both stand high amongst our fellows. Bear in mind, respect within an Outlander tribe is earned rather differently than it is earned in Time Lord society. Wealth counts for nothing. Indeed, we do not even have a word for it. Political power is even more meaningless.”

“Oh, I know that,” Merrick said. “The best pathfinders, the greatest hunters, those with knowledge of plant medicines are the leaders among you. It was so with the tribe I spent time with.”

Voron raised his eyebrows at that, but Merrick shook his head and said it was a story for another time and asked him to go on.

“Aras was the supreme hunter. It was said that he could see into the minds of the herds from fifty miles away. Suras shared his skill. There is nobody more adept with a bow. She can shoot down gye-fals with the sun in her eyes. She feels for their position in the sky.”

He took more coffee and smiled softly.

“Needless to say she is beautiful as well as accomplished. Dark of eye and hair, straight of limb….” He paused as if remembering that he was talking to children of Time Lord society. “You probably haven’t begun to care about the SHAPE of a woman, but when you do, the word ‘allussai’ will have meaning to you.”

“I think I know what it means,” Gynnell said. His friends nodded as if he spoke for them. “But we attend an exclusively male educational institution and apart from mothers and sisters the female of our species are pretty much outside our scope, yet.”

“We weren’t the only men of the tribe who thought about her in that way. But Oron and I were the only ones she encouraged at all. I think I was the first to declare my love to her. She received me kindly, but reminded me that her father would have to approve a match. That is the way, of course. But nothing could be decided because her father was away on a long hunt. He was gone for over a month, following the tun-bisse. You boys will have some knowledge of desert-living animals, of course? You know about the herds of well-muscled animals with thick hides that make our shelter and full-blooded meat that feeds our people for many days?”

Everyone but Merrick pictured the tun-bisse in their heads – their heads as high as a man, thick-skinned, heavy-set bodies and two pairs of horns coming out of their skulls that would gore the unwary hunter to death in an instant.

Merrick was thinking of the buffalo of the American prairies that he had spoken of many hours ago.

“While he was gone, while I waited for an answer before doing anything more than holding her hand and kissing her lips, Oron came to her with the same suit. She told him the same as she told me. I don’t think she was meaning to play us off against each other. I think she genuinely loved us both and could not decide which of us she should give her hearts to. Things would have stayed as they were until her father returned if Oron had not….”

He glanced at the still sleeping man. All of the boys felt telepathically the flash of anger that subsided as quickly as it came upon Voron as he remembered.

“I don’t think I mentioned, but Joron, Oron’s father, my adopted father, was our tribe’s medicine man, skilled in the uses of the desert plants. We both learnt those skills from him. But I never thought to use that knowledge to further my suit for Suras.”

“And Oron did?”

“He brought a drink spiced with what we call myliu lapu. In low Gallifreyan it might be called love-leaf. It heightens all of those senses…. It….”

“It’s a love potion,” Jase said. “My aunt is a herbalist in the Yardages. I’ve heard of it. The use is frowned upon among Caretakers, but she sells a lot of it to high born ladies. I’m not sure exactly what they do with it. I suppose it goes with understanding what ‘allussai’ means.”

“Indeed,” Voron agreed. “Oron gave love-leaf to Suras, and took some of it himself. Then the two of them spent the night together. Oron told me about it the next day. I was angry with him. I felt that he had betrayed me. I had pressed my suit first. It ought to have been me. I was angry with her, too. She had willingly taken the drink, knowing what would lead from it.”

He paused. His eyes looked deep into the flickering fire which Shill and Jase had kept fed with new wood that gave off a pleasant aroma as it burnt.

“The next evening I went to her with love-leaf. She told me that she was sorry, but she had made her choice, that she loved Oron more. But I did something shameful, then. I made her drink the potion I had brought. It made her willing... compliant. When I laid her on the sleeping mat she made no complaint. She enjoyed my love-making. She declared her love for me above all others, and though I knew it was an illusion, induced by the leaf, it was binding, nonetheless. In the morning, she was as much my wife as she was Voron’s. She had given herself to us both.”

Benic called out a word – two words, in fact, one an Outlander word for a man who forces himself onto a woman, the other the one used in the Time Lord statutes making forced violation illegal under pain of public flogging and imprisonment.

The other boys looked at each other and understood that both words absolutely did apply in this case. The woman, Suras, had been willing, but only because she had taken a herbal preparation that affected her emotions.

For that matter, didn’t the word apply just as equally to Oron, who had done the very same thing?

“Yes, it does,” Voron said. “We had both behaved shamefully – I, perhaps, more than he, since I made her take the preparation whereas she had willingly taken it from my brother.”

Benic glared at him accusingly, but the other boys were still curious about how the story ended. They reserved judgement on his morality, or that of his brother until he was done.

“Of course, what was done didn’t stay a secret for very long. There was outrage amongst both the men and women of the tribe. Our father swore he had not put either of us to it. He was so angry with us both. We were forbidden to have any communication with Suras. She was confined to her tent, supervised constantly by the older women. We were under a ban of silence. No other man or woman would speak, nor even look at us as we waited for Aras to return.”

“And when he did….”

“When he did, he made his daughter declare before the whole of our people which of us was her husband – the other to be banished from the tribe. She would not choose. She said she loved us both and that, since she had lain with us both, we must both be her husbands. But that is utterly against all of our customs. It could not be allowed. So her father made a terrible decision. One of us must die – by the other’s hand. We were brought here to the oasis where we must fight to the death. The one who stood at the end of it all would be allowed to return to our camp and be Suras’s wife. The other… would lie on the ground under the sun until his bones were white.”

“Horrible,” Gynnell said, on behalf of all the boys. “But all the same, why did you fight so viciously? Were you still so angry at each other?”

“Whether we were or not, the decision was not ours. Love-leaf induces passion. We have other plants that induce rage and murderous intent. We were made to consume such a plant before we were left with the means of each other’s death in our hands. Yes, the irony was not lost on us. We had used herbs in our crime. Herbs were used in our punishment. Worse, it was our father who prepared the potions, knowing what would come of us. And so… we fought. We fought like animals, slashing at each other, each fully intending to be the victor, the one who would return to the camp and take Suras as his wife.”

“You would both have been dead if we had not come when we did,” Merrick told him. “Gynnell saved your arm. I saved Oron from bleeding to death.”

“That complicates matters,” Voron admitted. “If we had both died, doubtless both would have been mourned by our people. Suras would have been distraught to lose us both. But then life would have carried on. As it is…..”

“As it is, you are both alive,” Benic told him. “You should be grateful for that. It is more than you deserve.”

“That I know,” Voron answered. “I know it all too well.”

“What will you do, either of you?”

“I don’t know.” Voron looked up at the night sky. Darkness had fallen as he talked. The constellations shone down from a perfect hemisphere and a sickle moon neared its zenith.

“We are breaking camp at first light,” Gynnell said. “You are welcome to stay here until then, both of you. In the morning you can talk to each other and make a decision.”

“I shall keep vigil through the night,” Voron said. “You boys may sleep in peace. Oron will sleep until morning, too. I will watch all of you.”

“Yes,” Merrick agreed. “We will bid you goodnight, Voron.”

He rose. So did Gynnell. Jase, Ari and Shill followed their lead. Benic stayed where he was, slightly outside the camp, proper, his back pressed against a tree. Voron looked towards him silently. With the light of the campfire spoiling his vision he shouldn’t have been able to see him properly, but Benic knew he could.

“I know you have questions, boy,” Voron said after a long silence. “Why don’t you ask them?”