The woman's beaded necklace matched the velvet tracings of her dress, lines of stylized ivy that hinted at an attempt to bring the outdoors in. Sleeves of fresh mint resting on a gown of apples and gold plucked from the setting sun. Her hair was a field of burnished strawberries, demurely held back by a single black band, pressing sharply into her hairline. They all thought her beautiful, their own lady of the lake, as she made her way through the echoing hallways.
As she reached the doorway leading to the small patch of outdoors that housed the cages she detected a familiar odor. She paused, leaning against the cool walls to confirm her suspicions and determine her plan of action before proceeding. The scent was of leather and damp forest, a trail that tagged only to one certain individual, a person whose presence made her hesitate and almost turn and flee. One hand unconsciously went to the hem of her dress, trailing up to wrap comfortingly around her shoulder. Her breath was calm, still, her lips parted softly. He was there, she could see his shadow now, moving about just away from her, a black form upon the sun-drenched cobblestones. She turned her head, ever so slightly, and gazed at the thin band of gold on her finger. Her wedding ring. She hated the scent of leather and forest now, hated it for the sheer fact that the person bearing that scent was someone who presumed to wear a band of gold, although he didn't. She rubbed one finger along the ring. In the autumn the light would filter through the leaves and dance off of hers, matching her hair. That was what her husband had married her for; this cascade of red. And it had ensnared many hearts in its tangles alongside his.
She took two steps backwards, her husband's plain features and mouse brown hair in her mind. Not handsome, not very important, but it was his eyes that had caught her attention. They danced, winter and spring, and underneath them rested a smile that could charm the heavens. Physical was never enough, could never suffice for a gentle soul and a loving heart. And so they were married in the autumn, amid the red leaves, and her hair across her gown had reminded him of a sunset in the winter. He was wholly devoted to her, as she was to him. And everyone knew it. Including the shadow that hovered just beyond her gaze.
Her hand slipped from her shoulder, sliding across her collarbone to rest pressed upon her chest, slightly trembling. She did not consider herself very strong, nor very brave. So she remained silent when she should speak out, giving her husband the barest of her discomfort, an idle reproach at the company he kept. He would always reply that he trusted her implicitly and she would lower her lashes, her heart trembling in fear that she could not hold true to his trust. The man was a good friend to her husband, loyal in all ways but one. He too had seen her hair and instead of autumn leaves he had likened it to fire, consuming flame that would envelop him and destroy them both. She had never let it go that far, turning away before his lips could brush her skin. And now, here he was, in the very place she had decided to visit today, haunting her steps – in her own house of all places.
She drew in a sharp gasp of breath, then slowly moved out of the archway into the light, raising a pale hand to shade her eyes as the adjusted the flow of light. He stood there pensively, his shadow draping across her to hide her feet in nothing.
"I thought I sensed you nearby."
She didn't reply, just turned away from him and crossed over to the cages lining one wall. Birds fluffed their feathers at her irritably, giving harsh cries at her presence. Her husband's hawks, and a little ways down, her own beast for hunting. A slender creature of buttered fur, bright beady eyes the same as the necklaces she wore. A pointed skull, chubby muzzle with a smattering of whiskers. He sprang up at her approach, turning in circles as his feet pattered like rain on the straw-covered bottom of the cage. He made no noise; he never did, but she knew he recognized her and wanted to be let out.
"Your husband is out for the day," he continued, walking to stand a couple feet behind her.
She unlatched the cage and reached in, the ermine sniffing at her fingers and then throwing itself into her arms, snuffling at her neck, hair, clothing, anything he could reach.
"The servants are off elsewhere."
The creature brushed his cold nose along her ear and she straightened, emerging back into the sunlight and walking right past him, paying his words no heed.
"Why do you keep ignoring me Marianne?"
She whispered softly into her animal's fur, he wiggling in response, darting his head back and forth. Their eyesight wasn't very good, their entire form being built for tunnels. Short legs and powerful claws for digging, neck muscles for snapping the back of prey. Keen hearing to detect the frightened breath of a rabbit, and extreme short-sightedness as the close confines of underground did not make the ability to see distance necessary.
"You'll fall, little one," she murmured, carefully getting a stronger grip about the ermine's chest and hind legs to prevent him from leaping from her arms to the ground he could not see.
His hand was on her shoulder now, brushing away the coarse fur her ermine had left from his inquiries into her smell a couple moments ago.
"Let me go," she said, a little harsher than she normally spoke to anyone. But her patience was wearing thin.
The ermine raked his claws against her skin, not trying to hurt her, but he could do nothing else with the splayed paws that yearned for more solid ground than her dress.
"No one is around," he whispered, fevered, half-mad, "No one would know."
"I would know. You would know. And I do not love you."
He stepped back from her, drawing in breath, sharply. The ermine grunted, a short burst of noise, and wiggled with his entire body, spine snapping in response to the muscles rippling under his hide. She struggled to contain him in her hands.
"I love you Marianne," he choked out, his hands restless with agitation, "Just a kiss. That's all I ask – one kiss."
The ermine bit her then, rows of tiny teeth puncturing the white of her hand and drawing forth a single bead of red. This time it matched her hair, sliding down the back of her hand as she whirled to face him, drawing herself up to her full strength as a woman. He backed away from her and the ermine grew still in her grasp.
"You will not touch me. Not now, not ever. You will not speak to me. I am lady of this house and you will respect me. Now go, get out of my sight."
He fled, spinning on heel and quickly moving off back into the hallways and away from her. She stayed still for a long time after that, her eyes burning, until the ermine twitched and sighed deeply in her hands.
"I am sorry," she said to it, and walked back to the cage, "I know you don't like being held. You're still a wild animal."
And she set him back within the confines she had placed upon him, and locked the door, turning to go in a swirl of red.