Bogach Mansion came as a surprise to Marianne on a number of levels.
For one, her father usually gave some hint before making extravagant real estate gambles. A rundown mansion in northern Scotland so far off the beaten track it probably couldn’t pick said track out of a line-up certainly qualified as a gamble.
"Got it for a steal, my dear," her father had said after shocking her with the news. "Hasn’t been so much as a nibble of interest in the place for at least a decade."
No surprise there. The nearest tourist attractions were a tiny village and a peat bog. And yes, on a hunch she’d google’d the meaning of bogach. Her father, for reasons beyond Marianne’s comprehension, had bought Bog Mansion.
"But Marianne," she’d muttered to herself while packing every sweater she owned. Summer or not, she wouldn’t risk Scotland’s stormy wrath. "Peat bogs are always turning up in the news these days. It’s a grand location. Think of the history!" She slammed the lid on her suitcase. "It’s just oozing character."
When Marianne thought ‘bog’, she thought of an eternal stench or the death of Artax. She’d half expected to see a partially submerged house when her father showed her pictures of the mansion. It hadn’t appeared to be sinking but trick photography was a magical thing. Granted, it was entirely possible she was going into this expecting the worst. And hadn’t Artax died in a swamp, anyway? What was the difference between a swamp and a bog?
Well, she’d find out soon enough.
The sweaters turned out to be a good idea as the mansion’s slice of Scotland was experiencing a bit of a cold snap. A cold snap. In summer. How was that even a thing?
Marianne questioned every decision she’d ever made in the car her father had hired to take her safely to the village’s rustic inn, Peat’s Bed and Breakfast. The locals sure liked being reminded of the surrounding terrain. Why had she left California again?
Pfft, easy answer. Two weeks ago she’d been in love and now she wasn’t.
Marianne hadn’t fallen out of love so much as been violently shoved out into oncoming traffic by a blonde, cheating asshole named Roland. Surrounded by reminders of her bad judgment, the first thought she’d had after being stunned into silence by her father’s impulse buy had been one word. Escape. The mansion could have been a hovel in Siberia and Marianne still would have begged to be sent to see what could be done with the place. In the end all she’d had to do was let her father see a little of the desperation in her eyes.
"Do what you need to do, Marianne. Take the summer. There’s no rush." He’d pulled her into a hug. It stung even now to remember how shocked and nervy she’d felt at the affection. She wanted the comfort yet she couldn’t shake the memory of being lied to, folded in arms that did not cherish her.
At least she could take a little pleasure in blaming Roland for every minor inconvenience that befell her on this venture. The weather was Roland’s fault. The ludicrously-placed mansion was Roland’s fault. That faint whiff of rotten eggs was definitely Roland’s fault.
"Sorry, love," said Pare the innkeeper when she asked about the elevator. "No lift."
"What an unexpected twist," Marianne said under her breath. She smiled at Pare anyway. After all, it wasn’t his fault she had to carry her luggage up three flights of stairs. It was Roland’s.
More than anything, Marianne blamed Roland for the identity crisis that had been unceremoniously thrust into her lap. She couldn’t say she’d ever been a bastion of self-confidence but she’d never second-guessed herself at every juncture. In the airport she’d checked her pocket at least five times to make sure her ID was still there, convinced each time she’d forgotten it. Hell, she’d worried she’d gotten on the wrong plane despite all evidence to the contrary. She found herself leaning towards aggressive snark during even the most benign conversations as if wanting to intercept an incoming blow. Even Dawn had started tiptoeing around her, which only convinced Marianne she needed to get the hell out of her life. The last thing she wanted was to make her little sister feel as hurt as Marianne did.
Panting after her climb, Marianne finally put her key in the door of her home away from home for the next few months. She liked that it was a real key. Added an old-fashioned touch. She pushed the door open and looked briefly around the small accommodations. A slanted ceiling, a comfortable-looking single bed and a little oak chest of drawers under the window were all that greeted her eye. Later she would discover a very small television tucked away in the bathroom but given where she found it Marianne didn’t feel tempted to plug it in. At the moment she decided to concentrate on the positives. She wouldn’t be able to hole herself up in this room without expiring from boredom as she really doubted the viability of the wifi in the area.
She rolled her suitcase through the door, lifted it up and then set it on her bed. At the disturbance, the bed let out a tiny ‘meow’. Marianne paused and debated the likelihood that beds in Scotland were really that different from beds in America. This debate led to the conclusion that she was really jet lagged if she needed to even have a debate in the first place. She kneeled on the floor to peek under the bed.
A white cat with black eyes blinked at her. Then it yawned.
"I hope you’re not here for mice. Or if you are here for mice, I hope you’ve already caught them," she told it. The cat licked its pink nose before slinking out from under the bed and straight into Marianne’s lap. She stared at it, hands up as though it was aiming a gun at her. "Er, I’m not a cat person. Or a cuddler, so, not the human you’re looking for."
The cat started purring for no apparent reason. This didn’t exactly reassure Marianne. For all she knew the cat was delusional and would turn on her at any minute. “How about I take you to Pare and he can find you somewhere more comfortable?” She tentatively lifted up the cat. When it didn’t lash out at her, Marianne hurried quickly out the door but only after triple-checking that her key was in her pocket.
Pare gave her an amiable smile when she turned up at the front desk. “Hello again, Miss Marianne. Nice to see you making friends.” He waved to the cat. It returned the gesture by batting a paw in his direction. “Little fellow’s a fixture around these parts.”
"Uh, how… charming?" The cat nudged his head against her hand expectantly. Marianne gently set him on the desk instead. "I found him under my bed."
Pare chuckled. “Oh, I expect you’ll find him all sorts of places. He’s a free spirit.”
"Ah." How to tactfully ask that he not be a free spirit in her room?
"You’re not allergic, are you?" he asked, deep voice rumbling with concern.
"No, no! Just not used to pets. I wouldn’t want to step on him in the dark or something." Or wake up with him on her face. She cleared her throat. "Have you had him long?"
"No one owns this little imp," Pare said. Then he chuckled again but the sound held more caution than mirth. "Not around these parts."
"O… kay?" Marianne decided she’d be better off if she just accepted this as a local eccentricity and moved on. "Thank you for your time."
Pare nodded. “No trouble, Miss Marianne. Before I forget, though, my wife wanted me to tell you that the light’s just right this time of day for a trip up to Bogach if you fancied stretching your legs.”
Marianne took a moment to process that. “Your wife?”
The cat gave a disgruntled hiss and jumped off the desk. When Marianne looked to Pare, he shrugged. “The two of them don’t get on.”
"Fair enough. But how did your wife know I’d be interested in Bogach Mansion?"
Amusement glinted in Pare’s dark eyes. “You might have noticed it’s not a very big village. So when an American named Fairfield bought old Bogach and then another American by the same name made a reservation here, it wasn’t a difficult leap.”
Marianne felt her cheeks heating up. “Yeah, that would make sense. Sorry.”
He looked at her curiously. “What on earth for?” In an instant the tall, round innkeeper had gone from generically amiable to perceptive. Marianne felt certain he could see all the ways she was failing to connect the dots and come to the right conclusions.
"Nothing," she said quickly. "I think I will take that walk. Thanks!"
Marianne was out the door before Pare could say another word and before she could think to go get the keys to the mansion. By the time she was out of the village, headed toward the hulking shadow in the distance, it was too late to go back without looking a touch unhinged. Not that she wasn’t unhinged. Damn, it was so frustrating to be flailing about with no sense of direction. She blamed love, entirely. What was the point of falling if you were never going to get back up again, even after it was over?
As she walked, the difference between a swamp and a bog gradually made itself known to her. The stretch of purple heather as far as she could see was the most obvious one. She certainly didn’t remember any pretty flowers when Artax had drowned. The warm glow of the evening sun kept the chill from biting too deep as she looked around the stark, open land. That boggy scent didn’t even seem quite as awful. All the colors here appeared so much richer than back home. Walking alone past an ancient bog blanketed with heather toward a mysterious house made her feel as though she’d been transported. Her reality faded as Bogach Mansion’s gates drew closer.
The bars on the gate had been designed to look like thorny vines and so she had to be careful when she leaned against them to look her fill. Gnarled and vicious, the mansion stood defiant against the gray-blue sky. It looked nothing like it had in the pictures. Towers stabbed out as though to pierce clouds and angry gargoyles were perched on the roof. It felt as though a few were staring right at her with violent intent. She smiled.
Never had she thought a building could be angry but she felt it here. Something in the way the stone had been slotted together spoke in a snarl while pride held it tall. She wished she’d been a little less proud back in the village. Then she would have the key to this place. Not expecting any give, she pushed a little at the gate. It immediately swung open.
Marianne gaped at it. Well, that wasn’t safe. God only knew who had ransacked the place after finding the gate unlocked. It wouldn’t be difficult to break a window and slip through to steal any treasures that had remained after countless owners. The thought infuriated her. She found herself hurrying up the overgrown path to the mansion before she could think better of it.
When she checked the massive front doors with their fanged knockers, Marianne found them unlocked. This was unacceptable. She would be sending word to her father as soon as she could that whoever had been looking after this place before them had done a piss poor job of it. And how dare they? The value in places like Bogach Mansion didn’t just lie in profit margins but in memory. It was a snapshot of the past. Never again would there be a place like this and to think it may have been harmed through carelessness…
Marianne flew in to the mansion on a cloud of righteous fury. Light followed her in through the open door but the windows were too cloudy to let in any themselves. Two arches stairs curled around the back of the entrance hall and beneath them she could see a corridor leading further into darkness. The air smelled heavily of neglect. When she looked down at the floor, she could see where her feet had disturbed the layer of dust covering what might turn out to be marble. However her footsteps were the only ones she could see. A little of her anger leaked away. Maybe no harm had been done.
Not quite satisfied yet, Marianne kept moving forward while getting out her iPhone and flipping on her flashlight app. She studied the floors intently as she moved past the stairs into the corridor. The musty smell increased as she moved away from the source of fresh air. Still no sign of intruders but Marianne was getting that creepy ‘being watched’ sensation. She lifted her phone and suddenly found herself staring into a portrait’s flat eyes. “Oh, thank God,” she sighed.
In fact, the portrait was probably a good sign in many ways. If there were still art on the walls there likely hadn’t been any thefts. Maybe no one knew the place had been unlocked. Or maybe the village kept up a regular watch of the place and any potential thief hadn’t felt up to the challenge. Whatever the reason, Marianne was glad.
She turned around and the light on her phone illuminated a landscape painting of the approach to Bogach Mansion before the house had been built. Marianne peered at the faded colors and hoped some gentle cleaning might be all the painting needed to become vivid again. If it had been kept in this dark place for long enough, perhaps not much damage had been done.
A large, wild tree grew on the hill where the mansion now stood. Through the dust she could just see a figure standing beneath it holding a staff. Was that a touch of amber in the center?
Wind howled through the open doors and tangled its icy fingers in her short, choppy hair. Marianne looked outside and saw the light beginning to fade. She grimaced. Going back didn’t appeal to her. There was so much here to see and, although the place was not welcoming in the least, Marianne felt comfortable inside these walls. Still, she’d rented a room and it would be foolish not to use it. Plus if there were beds left here they were likely infested with bugs, never mind the dust. She would get a good night’s sleep and then run back here in the morning for a full day of exploration.
The thought put her a smile in her face and she nearly skipped on her way back to the gate. Oh, the gate. She paused.
Leaving it unlocked for another night probably wouldn’t do any harm. On the other hand, she wouldn’t be able to sleep if she didn’t do something to secure it. She felt a little silly but that didn’t stop her from unfastening her belt and looping it around the gate.
"See you in the morning," she whispered. The impulse had been irresistible. An adventure was waiting in that mansion and it belonged only to her. She felt the swelling of a familiar emotion in her chest but ignored it. Promising to never fall in love again didn’t count when it came to architecture.
She jogged happily down the road to the inn and to a surprisingly deep sleep after a day of traveling.
And in the darkest part of the night, a single claw slid over the belt she’d left behind.