Xander listened to the boy pump water into the bucket. Part of him regretted what he was about to do. If he did nothing, this son of an innkeeper could have a normal life. That man (what was his name?) might be hard on him, but as the eldest son the boy was sure to inherit the inn someday when his father finally succumbed to age or sickness. By then he'd know all he needed to run the place, and with the inn to support him, he'd be a decent catch for some local seamstress or farmer's daughter.
But that was not going to happen. The needs of the many, he reminded himself. The boy had enough natural talent that the Gifts were beginning to encourage his own gifts. And that doomed him to greatness. Such material could not be wasted, not with the world in the state that it was at present.
A thousand years ago, he might have become just another innkeeper with a knack for knowing when his guests wanted a drink refill, or a healer who was better than average at knowing who needed extra care to stay healthy. Without the Gifts of the Tourists his natural talents would most likely have never flowered into anything strong or significant.
The coming of the Tourists from the stars had altered things forever. That they had brought about the downfall of technological civilization was undeniable. Had they known what they were doing? He might never be sure of that. Personally, he would like to believe that it was all a tragedy of carelessness. Though the extent of the destruction was heartbreaking, he refused to assume it was the result of deliberate malice. For his own peace of mind, he preferred to assume that the Tourists simply had never dreamed that their actions would have such consequences.
Were we the first planet to be so stricken? There was no way to know. If, as he believed, they never returned to previous ports of call, then perhaps they had never witnessed what could happen to a lower-technology world that had prematurely tasted their magical shortcuts.
No, not magic, he corrected himself. But it might as well have been. And who could resist it, who could refuse something-for-nothing? Almost nobody.
The boy had come back to refill his bucket. The squeaking of the pump and the sound of the water splashing at the bottom of the empty container broke his reverie and reminded him that he was here for a reason. Might as well get it over with. So many other things to do.
He reached his mind out of the darkness surrounding him and unwrapped the pathspace. The readmitted sunlight, fading as it was at the end of another long summer day, was blinding. It always was when he dropped the invisibility weave. He squeezed his eyes to slits to let the pupils adjust to the dimming brightness of the evening. Maybe I should have waited till after sunset. Always in such a hurry, you old fool.
And there was the boy, gaping at his reappearance. “Do you know how to ride a horse?” he asked the lad.
“Pity. It would have made this a little easier. Come on, let's go.”
The boy followed him back to the watering trough, since he was headed there anyway. But of course he had to ask, as he poured the water. “Where are you going?”
They heard a distant shout of “There he is!” Xander turned and saw the men hurrying toward them. They had their crossbows now, and they looked anxious. Well, they had their orders.
“Actually, we're both going,” he told the boy. “What's your name?”
The lad looked at him as if he were crazy. “Lester. What are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere! “
“I'm afraid you are, Lester.” He turned to the men who were surrounding them now. “Relax, gentlemen. We're not going to do anything stupid.” He glanced back at Lester. “You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
“I think I already did,” Lester muttered. “You planned this, didn't you? You expected them to catch you. Whatever it is you've done, you've involved me in it, and it isn't fair!”
Xander nodded at that. “Entirely correct,” he said. “Not fair at all. But necessary. The sooner you understand that, the better we'll get on.” He turned to the men. “The boy can't ride,” he told them. “We'll have to borrow a cart or something, or else wait for the morning coach.” He supposed it must seem peculiar to the boy, a prisoner directing his own retrieval.
The captain pursed his lips. “Are you sure you've finished with running for the time being, old man? As I recall, you've gone further than this is the past.”
“Oh, quite. I never argue with crossbows at close range, Captain. Especially so, now that I've found him. We'll give you no trouble, my word on it. Will we, Lester?”
The boy's face alternated between alarm and hostility. “Found me? You never set eyes on me until today. How could you have been looking for me? Let me go! I've done nothing to deserve getting arrested by the Governor's men.”
The captain glanced at Xander, one eyebrow raised. “Haven't told him, have you?”
“Well, you know me,” said Xander affably. “I like my little surprises. I expect he'll settle down once he understands the truth of the situation. Might take some explaining, but there's time, especially since a cart will slow us down for the trip back.”
The captain shook his head, smiling. “Poor bastard.” But Xander detected a trace of envy in the officer's voice. The boy has no idea of what awaits him. But if he had, would he have come gladly … or run for the hills?
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish