Theo pulled up short; reining his horse back before the two of them could pitch headfirst into what he was sure was the first bog of the marshland. The animal shook its head, annoyed at being treated roughly and Theo bent down over the saddle to pat its neck. “Apologies.” He said softly.

The horse quieted, only shifting uneasily as he dismounted. They were new fellows, Theo having just inherited the Ashlock estate and taking pains to improve the stables his great uncle had left to wane. The afternoon had seemed as good an opportunity to both acquaint himself with his new borders and newer companion.

Both tasks were confounded by the animal’s spirited disposition. It had been a bracing trip to the edge of the lands. Theo imagined what he must look like, hair windblown and riding jacket torn from a grasping branch. He smiled; it wouldn’t matter until he got back and set people to worry, for now he could enjoy the small adventure.

Even with the heavy clouds obscuring the afternoon sun Theo could make out the pitfalls and deep water well enough on foot. The only casualty would be his boots, already muddy beyond recognition. With that in mind Theo set off leading the horse behind him.

Smugglers once used the cover of the East Lake bogs to move illicit goods during harder times. The remnants of their ramshackle hideouts could still be found on the edges of Ashlock lands. That was of course if his father’s notes on the region were correct. His one visit to these lands as a child had been filled with stories of greedy thieves, hidden smuggler’s gold, and the traps set to guard it. Just tales for a lonely boy far from home, but Theo saw no harm in entertaining nostalgia as he was already surveying the borders.

The air had chilled considerably by the time he discovered the first rotten planks, still leaning against each other under a fallen roof. The marsh had reclaimed the entire interior and Theo paused only to walk a circle around it, grinning to himself.  A decade ago this would have been a find better than any smuggler’s treasure, from what he remembered he’d possessed quite an imagination  as a child.

His second find was far more intact, not more than a mile away from the first, all four walls were standing with dusty slivers of glass in the windows. Theo had enough presence of mind to tie the horse to a thick branch before ducking inside the empty doorframe.

The interior’s floor was comprised of rough creaking planks and the hearth only reached to his waist, the chimney long ago collapsed to leave a sizable hole in ceiling. Theo turned and took in the small empty cottage. His smile faltered as his eyes adjusted to the deepening gloom. The floor was clean. Theo’s own muddy footprints were visible against the swept wood.

His eyes darted to the corners of the hearth, no spider webs, and no rotting leaves from the ceiling’s wound above him. He could now see the small dusting of dark grey ash around the hearthstones. Theo frowned, it was possible travelers had used this place…but why would vagrants bother to sweep the floor?

He suddenly felt the cold he’d been ignoring. The sun was sinking rapidly, now sending long shadows through the open doorframe and across Theo’s back. Theo turned to leave; he would be getting back after sundown as it was. A frown furrowed his brows.

In the golden light of the dying sun small black scratches marred the doorframe, none were larger than the width of a shilling. Theo bent, running his fingers over the dark script. Black came away on his fingers. He shook his head almost in disbelief; his family’s estate was becoming stranger by the day.

The horse, seeing his master emerge, gave an impatient snort and danced to the side as far as his tether would allow. Theo smiled and let his fingers drop from the jagged black grooves. This was a mystery for another time and daylight, the latter of which he was quickly outlasting.

Theo gave the animal’s nose a pet and received forceful nuzzle in return. “Well at least we are getting along.” Theo sighed and took the horse’s reins, beginning their way back through the marsh.


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