Marion was not at all sure what the ‘Great Rocks of Im’ were. They were talked about as one of the great wonders of the desert, but she wasn’t sure whether to expect some kind of natural wonder like Ayres Rock or an ancient monument such as Stonehenge. Nobody told her anything other than that they were magnificent.

They travelled to the so celebrated place by tri-shaw – several tri-shaws, in fact. The President and First Lady with their foster daughter were in one of the vehicles. In front of them was the Gallifreyan security detail and in the lead was an Imnian guide showing them the way. Behind the Presidential party was the Maji and his wife followed by his own personal bodyguards. Bringing up the rear of the caravan was a tri-shaw carrying a butler, two maids and a very large picnic lunch for the VIP party.

They stopped for lunch with several miles still to go before they reached their destination. A canopy was erected very quickly and they sat on a wide silk sheet to eat a delicious meal of cold meats, savoury tarts, cheese and crisp salad. There was fresh fruit and deliciously dried, spiced fruit and a light wine to refresh the palette as well as cool unfermented grape juice that Rodan thoroughly enjoyed.

Then they rode in the tri-shaws again. The ground was flat and featureless and Marion wondered how anyone even knew where they were going.

“Imnains have a perfect sense of direction,” Kristoph told her. “You could take one of them blind-folded and leave him in the middle of the desert and he would find his way to the nearest oasis in a few hours. Our guide knows instinctively where we’re going.”

It occurred to Marion that they were putting their lives in the hands of people who could just as easily lose them in the desert. She hoped that Kristoph’s negotiations yesterday had been successful. She didn’t want some kind of coup to take place out in the desert.

“The negotiations went fine,” Kristoph whispered to her. “Besides, the Shaju people are perfectly loyal to the Gallifreyan Dominion. They revere us as demi-gods.”

“Demi-gods?” Marion smiled. “Strictly that means a half-god, half mortal – like Hercules or Cúchulain. Surely Time Lords are wholly gods!”

“I think they take it to mean we’re almost immortal. Our long lives are subject of Shaju legends.”

“But they don’t actually worship you or anything?” Marion asked cautiously. “That would be too much.”

“No, they don’t do that,” Kristoph assured her. “Ah, I do believe we ARE getting somewhere at last.”

He pointed towards a large rocky outcrop in the distance. The guide tri-shaw had turned slightly towards it and the drivers of the other vehicles followed suit.

“That’s not what we’re supposed to be excited about, is it?” Marion asked. “New Brighton has rocks that are more impressive than that.”

“No, I understand this is just a marker,” Kristoph answered. “Wait. It will be worth seeing. I heard all about it from the prime minister yesterday. He was very enthusiastic for us to visit. It is a revered place. That’s why there are no photographs of it. Such things would be regarded as disrespectful.”

“It’s a spiritual place, then? But not actually holy like… I don’t know, Mecca or Canterbury Cathedral.”

Kristoph smiled at her examples of holy places on Earth.

“More spiritual than actually holy,” he admitted.

They drew closer to the marker, and then the lead tri-shaw dropped out of sight. The reason soon became apparent. This was the way into a gorge that made the grand canyon pale in comparison. The tri-shaw drivers slowed their vehicles as they moved down the narrow path along the edge of the canyon with a dizzying drop on one side and an increasingly high cliff on the other. Of course, these were hover vehicles, but they couldn’t actually fly. If one tipped over the side it would be fatal. The caravan moved carefully.

“In legend, the canyon was formed when a giant thrust his staff into the dry, parched ground and caused it to split,” Kristoph said. “But modern Imnians understand about plate tectonics.”

“The legend is more colourful,” Marion decided. Rodan declared herself in favour of giants even though she knew about plate tectonics. Marion was pleased about that. The little girl used her imagination. She wasn’t just a logical Gallifreyan in that so frustrating way the adults of that world so often demonstrated.

The descent into the canyon took a full hour, and it was a slightly terrifying but magnificent hour as the cliff rose higher and, for while, the ground still looked a very long way off. Finally the path widened out and they were on the canyon floor. The tri-shaws increased speed and they moved along in the delightful shade of the high cliffs on both sides.

“Is that a rabbit!” Marion exclaimed as something flashed away into a hole in the red canyon wall.

“Not likely,” Kristoph answered. He leaned forward and asked the driver who said it would be a ‘pecuu’. It was a rodent of a sort, with short ears and a long tail, and thick fur that held cool air near the body to keep it from over-heating.

“Much like a rabbit, then,” Marion agreed. “Or a lapin on Gallifrey. Funny how so many worlds have the same kind of animals that fill the same places.”

“Yes,” Kristoph agreed and pointed partway up the cliff to where a much larger creature with a reddish coat was almost camouflaged against the rocks. “A deer, llama, or an alpaca, perhaps? Or a southern Gallifreyan impassa. They occupy the high places around the escarpments.”

“That, sir, is a gerelle,” the driver said. “They are found only in the great canyon. You did well to spot it. They are the hidden splendour.”

Marion agreed with that. If Kristoph had not shown her where to look she would not have seen it. Only his Gallifreyan eyesight allowed him to spot the creature.

“Is this what is so wonderful about the Rocks of Im?” Marion asked. “The wildlife here in this oasis in the desert?”

“No, there are greater wonders, yet,” Kristoph assured her. “A few miles further on.”

Marion sat back and enjoyed the wildlife. She didn’t spot another gerelle, but she saw many more pecuu running for their holes and birds of all sorts. It was amazing to find all of this in the middle of a desert.

And then they reached a narrow offshoot of the gorge, where, perhaps, long ago, a minor giant had caused a less devastating crack to form – or perhaps where a smaller fault line joined the bigger one. Here the tri-shaws halted and the party continued on foot.

It was even more shaded here, and cool enough almost to be called cold. It was a refreshing feeling in the dry heat of Shaju generally and the desert in particular.

But what they came to after a short walk was utterly breathtaking.

“Houses in the rock,” Rodan said in delight and excitement.

“Not just houses,” Marion answered. “Amazing houses. Look at the carving around the windows and doors.”

She turned and looked at one huge doorway with statues carved out either side of women in the familiar silk clothing of the Shaju people with hands outstretched in welcome.

She stepped into the building carved deep into the very rocks themselves. It was dark, of course. The guide came forward with a torch that illuminated walls covered in frescoes depicting the life that used to be lived in an ancient community that as long gone.

She noticed that all of the figures in the paintings were female. At first she was puzzled, then she gave a gasp of understanding.

“Oh, this was the Shamnu,” she said. “The place of refuge for the women of the desert.”

“Yes, madam,” the guide said. “That is why it is revered. Here the women would live in shelter and peace. Here they spun and wove silks and made fine tapestries. Men would come to the edge of the Shamnu with their suits of marriage and wait for a woman to give her consent. Then she would leave the place of the women and go to his tent.”

“His tent? So the people were nomadic then, except for the unmarried women?”

“That is so. At a certain age young girls would leave their tribes and come to live here with the women. They would learn the skills in preparation for marriage.” The guide saw Marion’s ironic smile. “Yes, in those times marriage was the only career for a woman. It was considered the highest honour. A man who’s suit was accepted was joyful.”

One of the frescoes depicted such a joyful scene with a woman dressed in silk from head to toe walking on silk flowers as she went to meet with her husband to be and proceed to the wedding. Marion was reminded of the wedding that was taking place today in Im. She had made some of the flowers herself.

“When did they stop living here?” she asked. “And why?”

“When towns were built of bricks and men and women stayed in one place there was no need for it,” the guide explained. “Every town and city has the Women’s Quarter within it. This is now a part of our history, to be admired and wondered at.”

“I think it is magnificent,” Marion agreed. She looked around once more at the place where the women had gathered socially. The first magnificent thing was that it was cut out of the rocks with hand tools many centuries ago. And the second thing was that this was no primitive cave, but the centre of a community just as sophisticated as the one she had encountered yesterday in the Shamnu of Im.

Yes, she was impressed. She looked around once more at the richly painted frescoes depicting a community that had lived long ago, yet still lived now in its own way.

When she went outside again she was greeted by Rodan who had been shown a room where children had played, which still had stone cut models of chairs and tables for playing upon, and most importantly, as far as she was concerned, a horse for pretending to ride.

Kristoph was equally pleased with the forum, with seats cut into the rock in a semi-circle where the women of the desert Shamnu gathered to discuss matters of importance to them, such as electing their elder and making rules for the lives of all of them, or to hear educational lectures and plays and performances for entertainment. They had a very full life here in their rock carved world.

“I am very impressed,” he said.

“Not just because women organised their own town council?” Marion asked him pointedly. “Given that the idea of women in the political arena is such a new idea on Gallifrey!”

Much newer than it was on Shaju, it appeared! Kristoph smiled wryly.

“Not at all,” he assured her. “There are scripts carved into the wall, detailing the issues that were discussed. Everything from the hours they should work at their looms to the dowries allotted to orphan girls without fathers to provide for them. I am amazed and humbled that a community we would have considered light years behind us in technology were so far advanced in political organisation when we were still practically feudal.”

“I think that must be what Gallifrey has gained from its connection with Shaju,” Marion commented. “You should value the lesson.”

“I will, but don’t you go starting a campaign for a Shamnu or a women’s forum on Gallifrey.”

“Perish the thought,” Marion answered. “But when we get back to Im, there is something I would like to do.”

It was after sunset by the time they reached Im, but Marion let the servants see to Rodan’s supper, bath and bed while she and Kristoph changed from their day clothes and then went out to the well lit hall where a wedding was taking place.

They brought gifts of gold, silver and silk, all three in abundance, for the bride, Jaoi, and her groom who was surprised and a little awed to discover that his new wife was acquainted with the VIP visitor to their town and that there was a demi-god from Gallifrey bringing gifts for their future life. When he got over the shock he invited them both to enjoy the festivities. The dancing and feasting were due to go on for many hours, yet, and they enjoyed it to the full before walking back in the quiet of the night, to the Maji’s house.

“I wish we weren’t leaving in two days time,” Marion said as they looked up at the Shaju moon and breathed the still warm air drifting over the desert. “I have liked it here so very much.”

“There are many more places you will like,” Kristoph told her. “Besides, tomorrow I thought you would want to be shopping. I’m surprised we don’t own a lot of hand made carpets and tapestries already.”

Marion laughed and assured Kristoph that she would make up for that as soon as the market was open for business.