He waited for them at the foot of the Hanging Tree, an ancient gnarled oak that dominated the treeline, draped with the remnants of frayed ropes that swung like dreadlocks in the late spring breeze.
The stubble of a beard outlined his strong jaw, his cornsilk eyebrows almost invisible over eyes the color of deep ice. He wore oval spectacles; an odd thing, for a woodsman to possess weak eyes. Were it not for his pale features, his patched clothing would have melted him into the thick greens and opaque browns of the Old Forest.
He scanned them as they approached.
“Peggy,” said the woman, a little breathlessly, middle age etching the corners of her expressive green eyes. “You must be our guide.”
“Bert,” said the man bluntly, glancing past her at the others. “Half now.”
“What? Oh.” Peggy’s chin lifted and her gaze upon him sharpened. “Excuse me, please.”
Bert ignored her as she sought the modesty of some undergrowth. Like all wise traveling women, she did not carry her money where it could be seen.
The next arrival, a girl no older than twelve, struggled to the top of the hill, her cheeks flushed with exertion.
“Hello,” she mumbled, her eyes downcast, her black hair straggling from underneath her shawl.
Meekly, she counted out the sum from a stocking she had tied to her belt. Her toes peeked from her ragged shoes and she shivered a little, though it was a warm enough day.
Bert took the offered coins, then flicked one back at her. She caught it reflexively, as though accustomed to dodging missiles.
“Too much,” Bert said. He turned as Peggy emerged from the forest and paid her own due, the tilt of her head a little less angular, her eyes gentler.
She had seen the transaction.
The last traveler arrived in a fit of coughing.
“Just the ol’ lungs starting up again,” the newcomer attempted a wobbly grin. “It’s a grand day for a walk.”
Bert did not even have to ask; the coins cascaded into his outstretched hand with a harsh clink.
“You take silver, I hope?” the newcomer asked, squinting up at the guide from a breathless half-crouch.
“I prefer gold, but silver will do.”
“Good. Can’t stand gold. It’s so heavy. Like a coffin.”
Peggy half-grinned, perplexed, then shrugged as Bert motioned to them, turned, and melted into the shadows of the forest.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Peggy said, dropping back to accompany the old man. “I’m Peggy.”
“Where are you headed?”
“The northern coast.”
“That is a far way through the forest on foot. Surely it would have been easier to go by ship around the point.”
“I prefer to go by foot. Water is evil. Things can look back at you in the water. Things you don’t want to see you.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“You know it and I know it. So long as we stay away from them, we are safe. We can live forever.”
He laughed a short, barking laugh. “I haven’t looked in a mirror for my whole life. I don’t even look in other people’s eyes.”
Peggy frowned, the polite smile slipping from her face. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me. Stay away from what?”
“Don’t you know?” Ricky halted suddenly, as if in surprise. Then he leaned in close, and his voice dropped to a chilling whisper. “From the reflections.”