There's a girl down Kensington who does the laundry after the Faery Courts meet at the high holidays. Her name is Magdalene Maria, and she lives in the fourth floor garret in the blue-trimmed rowhouse with no cats (they can't stand the Fair Folk) and a plethora of washbasins to suit her clients.
Maggie's a good child, was raised Christian, anyway, but her third boyfriend tried to force her against her will one crisp autumn night at the end of October near a crossroads. The Seelie and Unseelie Court happened to be on their way by in a promenade of horses, and they didn't take kindly to that. And wouldn't you know, fair young flesh of a man makes a good teind.
Except you're not supposed to thank their kind, all tall and pale and thin and strangelike. She'd forgotten that though, and fallen prostrate before the pale woman crowned in golden briars (her face too bright to see and her hair a curling mass of bloody locks around it), thanking her profusely and asking what she could do for the Courts.
As it turned out, what she could do for them was their wash.
Lord Oakflower of the Seelie wasn't kind, exactly, but he was fussy when he came in with the first willow-woven basket of moth-woven silks and nightmare hair knotted in strange patterns. A simple washer and dryer wasn't acceptable, and neither was the washing basin her gramma had left her.
Certainly no factory-extruded detergents would do either. And her walkup on Broad Street with her mam wouldn't do either, what with all the old iron about to upset her visitors. Posthaste, Magdalene was stolen away by the fairies, but not to anywhere as glamorous as under the hill.
The house down on Kensington is full of similar such stories. Robert with the pale, watery eyes repairs tears in the horrific gowns of the Unseelie Court: Betsy with the plump arms and a silver ring through her nose keeps the garden of thistles and roses which none of them are allowed to enter on pain of abduction by their feral clientele.
They're watched over by Fair Aureate, whose lovely perfect figure and flowing, silver-laced locks speak to her Seelie mother, but whose face (scarred by curses and flowing like lava) excludes her from either court. Still, she smells of hay and spring rains, and it is her that shepherds away the most irate and unreasonable of either Courts, and to her that they go to confess their fears and hopes in their respective services.
Aureate (whose last name is not spoken, even in the Courts), is the one who bought Maggie's washbasins. She is a whirlwind of soft words and steely eyes who threatens a brownie out of his pewter bucket, who reduces a wailing Wiccan to tears before she parts with an antique silver cauldron. The amber tub she won't even speak of or deign to look at, as if it were somehow offensive to her.
And she chases away the Fair Folk men who would play with the hearts of her charges. The banshee who thought to avoid payment by seducing Robert, the nobleman of the Wild Hunt who would have taken Betsy away for pulling a rose... Maggie herself for Lord Ergotbane of the Unseelie, whose eyes, dark and gorgeous, promised many things. In the end, these "things" included six weeks of nightmares and a generous bonus from his infuriated, bloody-haired Queen.
As fair-tempered as she is foul-faced, Aureate is their protector, and so, when she goes missing one May Eve, Magdalene steals away down the rose and thistle-lined lane to the railroad. There, in the gravel, she finds a malformed spike of cold iron, and she hies her off up the hill where no road yet runs and no oaks have yet been cut.
The path is short if she follows the one to the crest, but Magdalene Maria still dreams of the song that accompanies the ride at Hallow's Eve, and she sees the veils between the cathedral gates of the forest marked with ogham and stranger signs. For her, the trail is three miles long and winding. It goes sometimes between bushes and sometimes along a broad Roman highway, but with her eyes squinted half-closed and the spike clutched to her breast in a white-knuckled fist, she is not fooled by fairie tricks.
After all, the truer magic happens when she steps across a curving line of grey stones and between the rose bushes full of red and white. Her skin is clean and bright and lovelier than reality. Her hair is braided with blossoms. And her eyes are half-blinded by the radiance of the Seelie Court, gathered still and silent and cold, their focus not upon the interloper with the deadly iron, but upon the man at the center of their semi-circle who holds a Mauser to Fair Aureate's head.
Where Maggie has but a simple spike in her hand, this man is helmed and garbed in iron, and has knotted his clothes close with loops of red thread. Where Fair Aureate's skin is shackled with matching loops of beaten black metal, her wrists are raw, and her face, even scarred, blazes with furious light as if it seeks to break free of both man and marks alike.
The Seelie Queen is garbed in a robe of blue and lavender butterflies (that shall be silk in morning and need the soap of milk and almond and fennel), and she speaks like the voice of some exotic bird, fluting and trilling. Maggie sways with the force of it, like a willow towards the stream. The man, however, is unmoved, weighted down to the ground itself by his armor.
"True Thomas, True Thomas, the girl is not yours. True Thomas, True Thomas, what would you with ours?"
It is no mere words but spellspeak, a pattering rhythm like rain on a roof or the slow flicker of the butterfly wings, and it settles over the clearing like dew. Maggie shuts her eyes tight, prays the Ave Maria, opens them again, a bit steadier.
"Bitch Queen, you promised me my daughter when she came of age!" he howls, spittle flying from his mouth. The nobility arrayed around the willow-woven throne stir, forms blending into one seeming like watercolor on paper, and the Queen raises a slender hand, stilling them.
"Singer, singer, song-speaker, thief. We promised the girl at the budding like a leaf. Singer, singer, song-speaker, man, to choose such a path by her own iv'ry hand."
The Lord's Prayer flows through Maggie's mind, and she stifles a giggle: no churchgoer her, but such things still worked in the fairy circles. She focuses on the man, on Aureate's trembling, on the small, frayed bits of reality creeping in around his iron-shod boots.
"You took my wife!" He is deranged, Magdalene realizes, his eyes bloodshot, his face scarred. The Mauser is shaking, his finger on the trigger, but not yet pulling. "My daughter! Ten years of my life and the whore and this whore's get, and..."
"You beat me." The words fall angry but honey-sweet in some perversion of a dove's voice cooing from one of the Host arrayed about their sovereign. "With your fist, with your feet. You beat me, Thomas, you beat me, and my daughter of the lea."
The Fair Folk hiss then, like serpents, a horrid sound raising the hair on Maggie's neck. The man's hand loosens from his gun as he stares at what must be the mother of his child, enthralled. The gun wavers from Aureate's hand, coming to point at the slender figure garbed in the scent of lavender and thistle blossoms. (It takes soap of lanolin and raspberry leaf, Maggie thinks, distracted.) Thomas, the man, is drooling now. She eyes the gun, tries to think through the thickening enchantment of the hill.
He's babbling and drooling, and the gun is yet steadying, and as the dovesong voice and his raving raise and mix and Aureate wails in terror and pain, Magdalene Maria dives for his arm, knocking him off balance and to his knees. With her soap-hardened hands, she beats off his helm, with her quick, strong fingers, she unknots the red threads binding his clothes. All around her, she feels the clearing press in like solid stone against her skin.
As Thomas claws at her with his hands, as he seeks to bring the Mauser to bear on her, she falls back, just in time for Aureate to strike.
Chains beat down, again and again. True Thomas falls flat, wailing in terror and pain as Fair Aureate, who smells of hay and spring rains, who dries the tears of her terrified employees (and brings them cookies on market day) beats her father into the ground, as she strips the makeshift armor from his prone figure with fingers like talons.
And then, as the last piece of cold iron falls away from the man, the Fair Folk flow like water, like wolves, like hungry ghosts around them, and all is light and blurring color and the scent of rosemary and lavender. Screams echo across the hill and down the path, across the ancient stones of the Roman highway, through the thickets. Frost settles on the grass and tangling weeds.
Magdalene sees something with too many teeth, sees the flesh of True Thomas warp and eat itself, smells something rotten where it ought not rot, and as she shrieks and seeks to turn away, she is pulled into the embrace of Fair Aureate, who shields her eyes against her tattered gown with trembling, iron-prisoned hands.
"There there," Fair Aureate warbles like a songbird, her voice shaking. "There there. Just look away, and it will all be over with by morn..."
And then, humiliatingly, Magdalene faints utterly away. The last thing she hears, fluting above the black buzzing in her head, is the voice of a dove and the voice of the Seelie Queen rising in harmony above the shrieks and the rustling of the trees on the high fairy hill.
* * *
She sleeps for three whole days, as if conforming to the magic numbers graven on some sacred stone, waking curiously lightheaded to a pot of tea and a fresh scone on her bed in the garret at the Kensington rowhouse.
With her head spinning, she makes her unsteady way downstairs in a tattered nightdress and worn slippers to find Fair Aureate in the kitchen with a patchwork bag of gold and emerald hues that shines with the light of the fairy folk workings. Her face, bright and flawless, glows from within: a crown of braided, blossoming grasses girds her forehead and her flowing locks.
"Oh Maggie," she trills, and sweeps forwards, drawing her into a hug. "Beautiful Magdalene. Beautiful Maria." Her voice is poetry, is alchemy, is singing through the kitchen, and surrounded by the scent of spring rains and fresh hay, Maggie sways. Abruptly, she finds herself deposited into one of the well-worn chairs carved with rowan leaves as Aureate flows to her knees on the kitchen floor.
"I must go, but you have earned the favor of the Seelie Court and Fair Aureate. Know that you may call on me with rose petals in milk and I shall answer. Know that I am whole and fair of Seelie, and I am Aureate. I must go, but earn the luck of Fairy and my favor."
She is drawn into a fierce kiss upon each cheek and her forehead (and, shockingly, in a rush of desire and tongue, her lips), and the windows blaze with power, with light, with glory. The trilling of doves mixes with the songbird laughter of Fair Aureate, Lady of the Seelie Court, and for a moment, gazing through the kitchen window into Avalon, Magdalene Maria tastes fresh apples and honey.
Then the power fades, and Maggie, sitting in the chair, smelling of hay and spring rains, opens her hands to find the key to the door of the Kensington rowhouse clasped in her palm.
"Well'n." she ventures, blinking through the bedazzlement of fairy glamour. "Well'n, mam said I'd always amount to summat..."