Chris stepped out of his TARDIS and noted that it had disguised itself as a large erratic boulder in the same yellowish-brown colour as the desert that stretched as far as the eye could see.

An all male group of his acolytes joined him. They were some of those who were with him from the first day he opened his Sanctuary to them. Tony, Dale, Marton, Cól and Gill were a mix of Human, Tiboran and Gallifreyan with varying levels of telepathic and telekinetic skills, but all were adherents to Chris’s Way who had stayed on beyond the initial three year programme to help teach the next generation who came to learn to be the best they could be.

They looked at each other and agreed that they all looked impressive. They were in loose shirts and pants of unbleached cotton with woollen burnoose cloaks over them. They were all wearing pieces of blue dyed cloth wrapped as complicated headdresses around their heads and covering all of their faces except for their eyes.

“Yes, we all look like young Lawrence of Arabias,” Chris said to his companions. “Cól, tell the ladies to hurry up.”

“They’re here,” Cól answered. The men all drew back as the three women who had accompanied them stepped out of the TARDIS. Carya, Chris’s wife, Darryl who was married to Dale and Shone who wasn’t married to anyone, yet, but had an ‘understanding’ with Tony, looked stunning in feminine versions of the desert clothes. Their headdresses used less cloth and were made of a finer silk cloth. Carya already had a silk veil over all but her dark eyes. The other two women held them in their hands.

“You need the veils,” Chris told them. “It’s not about suppressing you as women. It’s practical. You don’t want the desert wind drying your skin. Put the eye protectors on, too. At midday the sun can be blinding out there, plus you really don’t want sand blown into your eyes all the time.”

He put his own eye protectors on. They were polarised wrap around glasses that fully covered all but the top part of his nose. The rest of the men did the same.

“You all look the same,” Carya said as he fixed her veil over her face. “I can’t tell you apart from the others.”

“I’m the one who gets to kiss you when we’re in a tent, later,” he answered. He covered her eyes with a set of glasses. She was completely protected from the elements. Darryl was, too. Shone was struggling. Chris helped her to fix the veil in place.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now what? Are we walking across the desert?”

“Not at all,” Chris assured her. “Just over the next dune we’re meeting up with a Ru'ta-eg camel train.”

He had taught them the basics about the social divisions of Ru’is’ha, the desert planet with a rich and colourful culture. The Ru'ta-eg were the nomads of Ru’is’ha. They were tall, strong men and beautiful women who travelled constantly across the deserts, making camp at night and moving on each dawn. Their lives were far from rough and ready, though. Their tents were made of finely decorated fabrics. Their women wore gold and jewels. They were the aristocratic and learned people of the Ru’is’ha. They had books that were carried with them on their travels. They made maps, not only of the desert, but of the stars above them, too. They studied those stars using carefully crafted telescopes.

The settled peoples of the Ru’is’ha desert were the Oz’o who fished along the wide estuary of the mighty Ru, the river that virtually split the one great continent in half, and the Go’hai, farmers and traders who irrigated the land near the river to grow their crops.

Then there were the Doo’n who hunted Horned Broa and the Black Sobin on the high plateau of the S’ha escarpment and the Lau’ni who wandered the yellow grasslands at the edge of the desert grazing their llasm herds and trading the wool, milk and meat that they yielded.

The grasslands were just visible on the horizon to the south, a darker coloured line dotted with the glossy green of Gamnog and Esh trees.

“Esh is actually a butter tree?” Shone asked as she scanned that horizon. Had she heard that right?

“It doesn’t yield rectangular blocks wrapped in greaseproof paper,” Chris answered, eliciting ripples of laughter from his companions. “But the nuts are rich in oil that the Lau’ni and the Go’hai both value. They boil the nuts until the oil separates and then set it into solid lumps that they flavour with herbs and salt and use as a foodstuff. The Go’hai also have a way of making it into a confectionary a little like white chocolate.”

“Nice,” Gill said, his mind fixing on food as usual. “So how do you know this planet so well?”

“The Doctor brought Davie and me when we were kids. We spent three weeks travelling with the Ru’ta-eg. They considered The Doctor to be a wise elder. I hope they’ll consider me to be a wise youngster!”

His friends laughed. Then Dale reported a dust trail in the distance. Those with Gallifreyan eyesight confirmed that it was the camel train. After a while, even Dale and Tony could make out individual camels with riders sitting high upon them or loaded with saddlebags and packs.

“There’s at least fifty riders… maybe two hundred camels,” Tony commented. “Chris, are you sure about this? They look like an army. Are we going to be safe?”

“We’ll be fine,” Chris answered. He reached into his robe and pulled out a piece of silk cloth. When the camel train was close enough to see them waiting, he raised the cloth like a flag. His companions could see that the fabric was a patchwork of silk fragments making up a complicated pattern.

The lead camel rider unfurled a similar flag and the train slowed until it stopped before them. The leader dismounted and stepped towards Chris who opened his face cover and removed his glasses in concert with the Ru'ta-eg.

“Magree, you are leader of your train, now?” Chris asked. “Has it been so long?”

“Long enough,” Magree answered. “My father died last winter.”

“May his train cross the great desert of the hereafter for eternity,” Chris answered. It was the proper way to speak of the dead. There was no need to express sorrow or regret.

“You were a child when you were here, last,” Magree added. “Now you are a man with a tribe of your own.”

“I am,” Chris agreed. “This is my wife, treasure of my soul, and my friends who have come to learn of the ways of Ru’is’ha.”

"We ride to the western settlement of the Go’hai,” Magree said. “We are two days away from that destination, but you are welcome to join with us.” He signalled and camels were brought forward. They were already saddled and bridled. Chris mounted one and reached to lift Carya to sit in front of him. Darryl easily mounted another camel and Dale managed to get up with her a little less gracefully. Marton looked doubtful but managed to straddle his mount on the second attempt.

Cól and Gill rode a camel together. Cól, riding behind, put his arms around his lover and grinned happily. This was different, but he knew he was going to enjoy it.

Tony looked up at the towering beast beside him. Shone held the reins and invited him to go first.

Tony tried. His first effort failed completely. The second failed comically as his foot caught in the stirrup and he hung upside down at the side of the camel.

“Would you like a training step?” asked one of Magree’s men to the amusement of all the rest.

“A step ladder would be preferable,” Tony responded. The tribesmen looked puzzled. They had no idea what a step ladder was. Chris explained. They laughed again, but with Tony rather than at him. They understood that he was making a joke. Magree told one of his men to help him, and finally he and Shone were mounted. Tony grasped the reins tightly and it was as well that his face was covered when the camel train set off again. His expression was almost certainly pained.

Chris was the only one of the group who had ridden a camel before. He looked poised and easy riding alongside Magree, talking with his old friend. The rest gradually found a way to look comfortable even if they were not, and were at least sure they wouldn’t fall off. Tony never quite got there. His stiff posture looked uncomfortable and almost certainly was. He only stayed on the camel because Shone was holding him tight and keeping him there.

“Don’t let your men tease him about it,” Chris said to Magree. “He is a clever young man, but his talents lie elsewhere. He will never be a natural camel rider.”

“Riding is more natural than walking on our own two feet to the Ru’ta-eg,” Magree said. “I’m afraid your friend may have to bear some ribaldry later when we make camp. We are making for the Ru’wani and we will follow it down to where its waters join with those of the mighty Ru itself. We shall be at the confluence before sunset as long as your friend stays upon his beast and we do not have to stop to pick him up.”

Tony promised to do his best. The train had slowed a little to allow for the less experienced riders, but they still expected to reach their campsite as planned.

The Ru’wani was a unique place in itself. It was not a surface river, at least not now. Many thousands of years ago it had sunk beneath the desert sands and made its own subterranean route to the main river.

The line of the Ru’wani was easy to spot because trees and bushes grew in that fertile place, drawing moisture from deep below the dry surface. The hundred and fifty mile line of lush greenery provided shade from the sun and a respite for the eyes after gazing into the heat haze of the unremitting desert. The trees and shrubs were rich shades of green and they yielded a surprising variety of succulent fruits.

The most delicious of those were the Gamnog fruits. They were the size and shape of a rugby ball with a hard mottled brown rind on the ripe fruits. Magree’s people picked them while they rode and cut them in half with knives that hung at their waists. Chris’s companions were surprised when they looked into the half fruits and found them full of liquid. They drank it and found it sweet and refreshing. Even Tony managed to let go of the reins by one hand to enjoy it. When the liquid was drunk, the flesh was cut from the rind in chunks and eaten. The Ru’ta-eg did so without slowing their camels at all. They managed the knife and the fruit one handed. Chris had learnt to do the same. He cut pieces for himself and Carya. Most of his companions got the idea and managed more or less. Tony let Shone do it while he kept tight hold of the reins. She put pieces of the fruit into his mouth while he hung on.

“Don’t get used to it,” she told him. “I’m not going to feed you your supper this way.”

“Shame,” he answered. “I wouldn’t mind. This eating while riding isn’t for me, though. I’m glad they DO camp for the night. I could imagine them sleeping while they ride, never stopping for anything.”

“I think this is fantastic, though,” Shone told him. “A roaming life, camping in a new place every night, food from the land, no wage to earn, no tax to pay. I could get used to it.”

“I couldn’t,” Tony confirmed. “I really want to get off this thing.”

Chris smiled as he heard their conversation. There wasn’t much danger of them becoming attached to the Ru’ta-eg way of life. He knew from their spoken words and their telepathic conversations that the other two couples were enjoying the journey, the chance to do something very different and learn about a culture that was new to them, but they thought of it as nothing more than an interesting adventure.

He was less certain about Marton. He was alone in his own thoughts, joining in with none of the repartee between the Ru’ta-eg and his companions. Even those thoughts were closed within his head behind his own carefully constructed walls.

He was the odd one out in the group, being the only one not in a couple. He tended to be the odd one out generally. He was liked by his peers. He had friends in the Sanctuary, both male and female, but no particular friend. He was content much of the time with his own company, seeking quiet places to meditate alone, studying in the library of Gallifrey that The Doctor made available to all who wanted to learn.

Of course, he was unique among men, born to be the chosen successor of the Master, but rejecting his path and carving out his own. That was a burden for a young man to carry – one almost equal to the burden Davie carried as the chosen successor to The Doctor.

Whenever that burden got too great for Davie, he had Chris to lean on. Who did Marton have, he wondered? Perhaps he needed to find time to talk to him during this trip, just to be sure that the burden was not pressing on him too much.

The sun had been a little past its zenith when the party from Earth joined with the Ru’ta-eg. By the time they could glimpse the reflection of the Ru in the distance, it was dropping low in the eastern sky. They were making good time, despite occasionally having to slow when Tony’s camel wandered out of the train with such a novice rider at the reins. He didn’t fall off at all, though, and they would certainly reach their campsite before sunset.

It was cooler with the sun going down and the sky began to turn a deeper colour with a few of the brighter stars already visible. Although everyone was starting to feel tired there was a deep sense of contentment. Even Tony seemed to be enjoying himself, perhaps because he knew that the day’s journey was almost over and he could get down from the camel at last.

“There are camp fires ahead, already,” Chris noted as they drew even closer to the place where they meant to stop for the night. “More of your kind, Magree?”

“No,” he answered. “It will be some of the Lau’ni. Do you see their llasm herds corralled for the night? That white smudge to the east of their fires.”

“Ah, yes.” Chris noticed that Magree and his people were pleased. “They will welcome our arrival?”

“They will, indeed,” Magree answered. “And we will welcome a change from dried camel meat for our meal tonight. Llasm with herbs rubbed into the flesh and spit-roasted over a fire is delicious.”

“Sounds good to me,” Gill remarked. “I’m starving. Gamnog fruits are very nice on a long, hot journey, but they’re not very filling.”

“I am sure there will be enough food for everyone,” Magree said. “If your appetite proves too great there IS still plenty of dried camel meat. Boiled for an hour and eaten with esh on leven bread it is quite palatable.”

“The roasted llasm will be fine,” Gill assured him. He patted the neck of the camel he was riding. “Hungry as I am, I’m not sure I WANT to eat one of this fellow’s relatives.”

“Give him a couple more days riding like this and he’ll eat a whole camel,” Cól added. “No matter who it’s related to.”

There was a ripple of laughter shared by visitors and Ru’ta-eg alike and descriptions of several other recipes for dried camel meat which were all quite tasty. Teasing Gill over his interest in food kept the mood light as they drew close to the camp fires and the tantalising aroma of roast meat began to scent the air. One of Magree’s men rode ahead to bring advanced greetings to the Lau’ni.

They were given a friendly welcome by the herdsmen and by the time the Ru’ta-eg had erected their silk tents next to the woollen ones of the Lau’ni the meal was ready. The riders in their burnouses and the herdsmen in their one piece hooded robes woven from Llasm wool sat on woven mats and cushions in a wide circle with the visitors from Earth. Everyone had as much as they could eat of the roast meat scooped up with flat, nutty and flavoursome leven bread dripping with the creamy tasting esh that was made from the nuts of the tree of the same name. Gill acquired a certain sort of admiration from the Lua’ni by eating four huge rounds of the bread and a man-sized portion of the meat.

After the main course there was a hot drink and a kind of cake that both tasted like milky white chocolate. Gill was especially fulsome in his praise of it. A Lau’ni woman offered him an extra slice of the cake and refilled his mug with the drink.

“Be careful about accepting food from women,” Chris told him telepathically. “You don’t want to find yourself married to her in the morning.”

“I’ll risk it,” Gill answered.

When everyone was fed, even Gill, the Lau’ni told stories in the oral tradition of people who didn’t have much use for books. The Ru’ta-eg DID have books, but few of them were works of fiction. They enjoyed a story told to them around a camp fire, too. So did Chris’s friends. Carya, especially, was delighted by it and offered one from her own world as her contribution to the evening.

“My people point to two stars over head in the sky,” she said. “Much like those two there beside your moon. They call them the blind lovers. They tell a story of a man and his wife who lived in a village on the plain. Both had been blind since childhood. They span and wove silk just by the feel of the threads and were admired by the people for that. But they were exceedingly vain. They both believed that they were beautiful. They told each other that they were, the man telling his wife how lovely her thick dark hair was and how sweet her voice, how fine her features were, and the woman telling her husband how tall and strong he was, how magnificent was his beard. All the people of the tribe encouraged them, but they did so in jest, making fun of them behind their backs. Then one day a man came to the village who could cure any ailment. He cured their blindness and they looked at each other for the first time and of course they were both elderly by now. Their youthful beauty had faded. The woman’s hair was grey and thinning. The man was bent and aged, his beard was white. They were horrified to see the truth and begged to be made blind again. The healer did as they asked, but they knew the truth now, and could not believe their own flattery any more.”

“A story with a moral,” Chris said. “Beware blind flattery.”

“Indeed,” Magree agreed. So did the chief of the Lau’ni tribe.

“Though it cannot be denied,” the chief, a man by the name of Lee-in, added. “Those of us who do have eyes appreciate beauty when it is before us.”

That was a compliment to Carya, who blushed deeply. In the sheltered camp everyone had removed their face coverings. The women of the Lau’ni and the Ru’ta-eg wore different headdresses in the evening, finely embroidered ones with jewels around the forehead. They had dressed the visiting women the same. Carya was looking very pretty in the firelight and her skills as a storyteller had endeared her to her hosts.

“We have a different story about those two stars,” said the chief astronomer of Magree’s people, a man called Soffen. “They are two rivals for the love of a woman, Ba’ni and Lut’eg. They fought until they had almost killed themselves, only to find that the woman rejected them both. Then they bathed each other’s wounds and vowed that they would never fight again, and nor would their descendents. That was the beginning of the different tribes of the Ru’is’ha. Ba’ni rode away on a camel and was the first elder of the Ru’ta-eg. Lut’eg stayed by the river and became a farmer – the first of the Go’hai. Later the Doo’n and the Lau’ni split from the Ru’ta-eg and the Oz’o from the Go’hai, but in each case it was a brotherly arrangement. Each of the peoples of the Ru’is’ha call the others cousins. We do not fight or covet anything the other has. The settled Go’hai and Oz’o do not prevent us from roaming across their lands. We take nothing from them that is not bartered.”

“That is a very satisfactory arrangement,” Dale said. “If only people on other worlds could be as friendly to each other. I have seen places as beautiful as this torn apart by tribal wars and rivalries.”

Neither the Ru’ta-eg nor the Lau’ni could understand such a terrible thing. The peace they spoke of had held for so many generations it was impossible to imagine one of their tribes bearing arms against another.

“Not good,” Chris whispered to him. “They had never even THOUGHT of tribal wars until you mentioned it.”

“Oops,” Dale answered. Then he cleared his throat and spoke up again. “I am sorry to have put the idea into your minds. It was wrong of me.”

“It could never happen here,” Lee-in of the Lau’ni assured him. “Cousins would not attack each other in such a way.” Magree on behalf of the Ru’ta-eg concurred.

“They’ve obviously never heard of civil war,” Dale whispered. “Brother against brother.”

“And let’s not introduce that concept to them, either,” Chris warned him. “Change the subject for Chaos sake.”

Fortunately, Gill asked if cold llasm meat was as tasty as the freshly roasted version and was served a generous portion as an open sandwich on top of a slice of esh covered leven bread as wide as a family sized pizza. Watching him eat his bedtime snack on top of the earlier feast that had satisfied everyone else became something of a spectator sport with side bets about whether he would finish it or not. It drove away the idea of tribal bloodshed before everyone went to their tents for the night, most of them content to take a gourd full of Gamnog fruit juice in case of thirst. Gill took an extra slice of esh cake in case he woke up feeling hungry in the night.

Of course the fire was kept going and there was a watch of two men overnight. There was no threat from other tribesmen but wild animals roamed at night, some of them capable of carrying off a llasm or even a small child.

But the beasts of the desert kept away from the camp. Nothing disturbed the peace except the occasional sound of a red monlas fish leaping out of the placid water of the Ru and splashing down again.

At least until just after dawn when the guards on that watch raised an urgent shout. Magree and some of his men came from their tent only partially dressed but ready for anything. The Lau’ni men were on the alert, too. Chris and the men of his group joined them in time to witness the arrival of an injured and dishevelled youth with bleeding feet from running a long way in the dark. Chris stepped forward and reached him as he collapsed.

“He’s not dead,” he said. “But he’s in a bad state. Get some water. He’s severely dehydrated.”

Water was brought, in a cup to give the youth a much needed drink, and in a bowl with a cloth to bathe his dry skin. Gradually he regained consciousness.

“What happened to you?” Chris asked. “Who attacked you?”

The phrase ‘who attacked you?’ hardly made sense to him. He was one of the Oz’o, identified by the light yellow colour of his clothes. The nearest Oz’o settlement was at least thirty miles downriver. If he had run all that way, no wonder he was exhausted.

“They’re… all… dead,” he said in a cracked voice. “The Sargos killed them… all of them.”

“The… what?” Chris asked.

“The… the Sargos….” He repeated before exhaustion and shock overtook him again.

“Get him into a tent, bathe his injuries, give him liquids,” Chris said. “And somebody tell me what a Sargos is.”

To be continued.