Six years later, a young man led his horse through a dead city.
Its once-splendid marble towers had cracked beneath the slow pressure of the encroaching forest's mighty oak and pine; many of the buildings had collapsed. The brick streets were choked with brambleweed, and looters had stripped away every piece of salveagable metal from the roofs and walls.
The man who ventured through the city's wooded remains did so with great care. Arden Broderick had grown into a handsome slip of a boy--his figure was formed from a conspiracy of harsh angles and sharp geometry, with skin the color of umber and charcoal curls as thick as a thumb. He was dressed in a hooded leather vest, dyed to a dull, muted green--with his father's mighty bow strapped over his back. The weapon was exquisite, recurved and built from a clever arrangement of yew, bone, and hide.
His horse was a warmly colored chestnut mare, carrying the weight of Arden's prize--packed elk meat. As they walked, he spoke to her, his tone gentle and soothing.
"The city's name was Archos," he told her, the sound of his voice meant to keep the spooked horse calm. "It fell several centuries ago."
The horse snorted as they walked over the sundered brickwork.
"Well, no," Arden said, "We don't know precisely why or how it fell. There are stories, sure, but like most stories, they are very silly."
The horse whickered.
Arden sighed. "Well, if you insist. But really, it's just a story." He took a breath and began: "The ruler of the city was a cruel and senseless tyrant. One day, a holy man came, seeking to spread the song of God. The ruler, who did not believe in God, had him captured and beaten. Many citizens gathered to watch the event, laughing and jeering."
Now the mare stomped her foot, clearly agitated.
"I did not say this was a pleasant story," Arden said. "Bloody and humiliated, the holy man cried out a warning--that those who were penitent should cover their ears, lest they face God's wrath. Those few who had grown sickened by the spectacle did as he bade, but the rest only laughed louder. And then the man began to sing a prayer to God--"
Arden stopped. Ahead was the immense ruin of a cathedral; its roof had all but disappeared, with a few bare archways exposed like the ribs of some long-dead giant. Dark vines and briarthorns grew in tangled clusters around the few supporting columns that had not collapsed.
The horse pulled back on her reins.
"Shh," Arden said. He moved toward the cathedral. "When he began singing, all those who heard the song were compelled to sing as well; when they sang, all those who heard their song were compelled. And so it went--all but a few in the city were left to sing forevermore, until their throats bled and their lungs burst."
The horse stopped in her tracks and refused to budge.
Arden stopped, turned, and sighed. "Look," he said. "It's just a--"
"Are you talking to your horse?"
Arden turned. A young man emerged from the trees, his own longbow close at hand. He was a head taller than Arden, and considerably wider--his torso resembled a plate of stone. Two younger men followed after him, dressed in the same brown hood and cloth.
Arden sighed. "Good evening, Desmond."
"You're doing it again," Desmond said.
"'Breathing'?" Arden asked.
One of the boys behind Desmond snickered. Desmond shook his head and pointed at the elk-meat packed up on the horse. "Poaching."
Arden narrowed his eyes. "I killed this on our land, Desmond."
"Funny, isn't it," Desmond said, "how you seem to always find meat to sell in our village, even when we can't coax up so much as a opossum?"
"Not my fault you can't hunt," Arden said. He started to lead his horse down the road, but Desmond stepped in front of him.
"You know what I think?" Desmond said. "I think you've been driving our game up into your territory."
"Stop being foolish," Arden said. "How would I even--"
"Everyone knows your family is steeped in the dark arts," Desmond continued. He stepped forward, pressing himself into Arden's space. "We've all heard how your mother bedded some dark forest spirit--"
Arden stepped backward and gave Desmond a stern look. "I'm not interested in a fight, so unless you're going to throw a punch, you might as well just get out of my way."
Desmond's mouth twisted into a snarl. He was about to say something when a terrible cacophony of whoops sounded in the distance.
All four young men snapped to attention; their hands reached for their weapons. They turned toward the source of the yell--down the road behind Arden, in the distance.
"Bogginfolk," Desmond whispered, and then he turned to Arden, hate and fury in his eyes. "You went through bogginfolk lands?"
"No," Arden snapped back. He lifted his hand for silence. "Listen--"
The sound grew louder. It was accompanied by the panicked shrieks of horses, and the clamor of wheels against stone.
"Wagon," Desmond said. "Shit."
"Some idiot must have driven through, unaware," Arden said. He turned to Desmond's friends. "Run back to your village. Tell them."
The two nodded, and ran. Desmond stayed, staring at Arden. "We have to stop the wagon before it gets close to the village," he said.
"I know," Arden replied. He drew a dagger from his hip and quickly cut off the straps that held the meat on the mare's back. "Can you shoot your bow bare-back?"
"Straighter than you can," Desmond said, although the words had little venom in them.
Arden threw himself atop of the horse and reached his hand down for Desmond. "Get on," he said. "We'll ride together."