roses are red, roses are white
a king of death and blood and bones
Madge of Bedford is born to an England on the cusp of war, soon to run red with its own rebellious blood.
The year is 1453 and her mother falls terribly ill, nearly dies in childbed. Midwives rush about in a panic as the Duchess of Bedford turns ghostly pale, blood pooling on the floor and outside, Madge's father the Duke paces along the stone floors of the hall, worry gnawing at his nerves.
The healthy, screaming child is hurried away from her dying mother and the nurse that attends to her cannot hide her disappointment that the wilting Duchess couldn't have given her husband a son and heir. What use will a small daughter have to so great a lord?
(greater than you could imagine)
The Duchess of Bedford does not die, manages to cling feebly to life but the midwives and physicians are clear, she will have no more children.
The newly christened Madge of Bedford will be her parents' only legacy.
(and what a legacy it will be)
Lady Madge of Bedford is adored and cherished, showered with the affection her parents cannot give to the bevy of children they had planned to have. She spends her early years raised in the comfort of her father's grand estates, far from court life and all its intrigues. Her father is the only one to travel all the way to London, always brings her back a gift, an exquisite dress or beautiful doll.
(she does not notice what he brings back for her mother, whispered words and frightened looks)
The world outside is rather foreign to her, the tumultuous landscape of England entirely unknown but then she enters her ninth year and with it, comes the invitation.
Her father returns from a session at Court but he is not cheery as he usually is, looks older even to Madge's young eyes. Her mother pales as she looks at him and Madge begins to feel anxious, looks from one parent to the other in question. Her father takes note of her and smiles, though it does not reach his eyes.
"Would you like to go to Court, my love? The King and Queen have requested that you and your lady mother accompany me to the Christmas celebrations. Would you like to meet the King and Queen?" he asks and Madge nods a little eagerly, perhaps not quite as dignified as a young lady should be. She cannot imagine anything more exciting that going to glorious royal palaces for the festivities, meeting the great King and his Queen. She is lost in the wonder of it, does not notice the silent words that pass between her parents, the fear in every line of their faces.
It wouldn't have mattered though, would it?
What the King commands, they follow.
What other choice is there?
Time moves far too slow for the young Madge, eager and bursting to go to London.
Her father commissions a new dress for the occasion and Madge feels like a princess in periwinkle blue. She concentrates with new passion on her lessons, is determined to be the perfect lady, impeccably mannered and well versed in court etiquette. She practices dancing as often as she can, is so short only one of her father's pages is suitable as a partner. He is clearly an unwillingly partner, only there because her father has insisted but Madge hardly notices, is far too focused on each and every step.
While Madge dreams of the beauty of England's royal court, her mother grows pale and ill, spends long hours of the day in bed. Her father too looks weary, nervous lines deepening in his face. There is a fear in Bedford Castle, a terror of the King she has never met that Madge does not quite notice, too caught up in her own excitement. To Madge, the King and Queen are fairy tales, shining and noble.
Soon, though, they will be her nightmares.
They leave for London at the end of November, in the hope of arriving before the weather reaches its worst.
Madge attempts to remain composed as she sits with her sickly mother in a litter, her father riding beside them. Her parents have told her little of the royal family, but she knows King Coriolanus has been king for many, many years, far longer than Madge has been alive. She knows the Queen, Enobaria, is from Anjou, though she cannot quite remember if Anjou is in France, or just very near it. And finally, she knows Prince Cato, heir to all of England, is near her own age, perhaps a year or two older.
Madge cannot wait to meet them, imagines the Queen will be beautiful and kind, the King just and strong, Prince Cato handsome and brave.
(she is wrong)
Madge has never been in a city like London, is breathless with awe at the sheer size of it, at the throngs of people spread throughout the streets. The smell would normally horrify her but she barely registers it, doesn't even notice how gray her mother's skin has become as they trundle through the city. It is magnificent and Madge is instantly enamored, never wants to return home. She cannot understand how her parents could choose to live on their estate in the country when they could live here, in the jewel of King Coriolanus' kingdom. Westminster Palace looms ahead of them, majestic and awe inspiring, steals the breath from Madge's lungs.
"Look Mama," she whispers in excitement, her mother moaning in response. Madge doesn't notice, can't take her eyes away from Westminster, her imagination racing ahead of her. Magnificent balls, handsome knights, beautiful gowns, they flitter across her mind like birds, bright and mesmerizing.
When the litter stops, when Westminster towers darkly above them, when her mother is so weak and grayed she has to be carried down, Lady Madge of Bedford blooms, unfolding like the rarest blossom. Springs bounce in each of her steps, thrills shine in her blue eyes and her smile stetches wider with every second. The Duke and Duchess of Bedford are quiet, menaced by the evil lurking in Westminster's halls but Madge, Madge comes alive for the very first time.
(oh, how times will change)
Madge is fairly certain her insides are humming when they go to present themselves to the King, her ears buzzing like summer bees. Her mother leans heavily into her father, each step slow and labored but Madge is the opposite, has to keep stopping herself from running. She shivers all over with anticipation when the great doors to the King's audience chamber are opened, her stomach writhing with snakes.
A smartly dressed herald announces them and they step inside, Madge's eyes magnetized to the heavy gilded thrones at the far end of the room. There is a great puprle banner hanging behind them on the wall, with the King's badge stitched in with fine thread. Madge feels a tingle in her spine as she looks at it, a wolf wearing a crown and surrounded by the red roses of the king's royal house of Lancaster. She drops her gaze to the people sitting in those great thrones, her breath freezing in her lungs.
Prince Cato stands to the King's right, dressed in fine burgundy velvet. He is young, with still rounded cheeks and fair hair, but there's something in the darkness of his eyes and the curve of his smirk that makes Madge shy, her heart thudding with nerves. The Queen sits on the King's left, wearing a sumptuous golden gown dripping with jewels. Rubies dangle from her ears, emeralds shimmer at her throat and sapphires shine on her wrists, the whole of her glittering like a precious gem. There are pearls woven into her dark hair and she smirks just like her son, her teeth sharp and pointed. Madge almost flinches, something foreboding slinking into her chest and she rests her eyes on the King then, the one man who holds all of England in his fists. He is much, much older than his wife, his hair a snowy white, his face lined and waxy. His lips are swollen and red, blood kissing the corner and Madge stifles a gasp as he looks at her, his eyes frozen over with ice.
The Duke of Bedford sweeps into a low bow, "your Majesties," he murmurs and then his Duchess wilts into a curtsy, her skin nearly translucent. Madge hurriedly drops into her own curtsy, chest feeling tight. They wait like that, heads bowed as the King's observes them, his eyes prickling over Madge's skin.
"You may rise," he says, a note of humor in his voice that has Madge wondering if she missed a joke. They all stand and Madge tries to remember her manners, but she can't help but take in the royal family with wide eyes. Prince Cato sneers at her and she frowns, would make a face but knows she isn't allowed.
"It has been too long, our dear Margaret," the King says, addressing Madge's mother. The Duchess of Bedford doesn't meet his eyes, her voice almost too quiet to hear.
"Indeed, your Majersty."
"We insist you visit more often. We won't have you hidden away from us in the countryside." His tone is almost light, almost joking but there's enough of an edge to it that Madge's father stiffens and her mother closes her eyes with a pained expression. Madge is confused, because the King is speaking as if he knows her mother, but neither of her parents have ever mentioned any sort of relationship before (she's also wondering why he keeps saying "we" when he seems to mean "I"). She wants to ask them but can't here in front of the royal family, Prince Cato's mean eyes digging into the side of her head. She wants to glare back but knows she isn't meant to, well brought up young ladies aren't supposed to glare.
(manners are sometimes dreadful)
"And this must be your daughter, then?" the King asks and Madge startles as she realizes he's talking about her.
"Yes, your Grace," her father answers and Madge turns in the King's direction, but doesn't raise her eyes, knows that would be improper. She can feel the King's heavy gaze on her and it makes her hot and uncomfortable. He doesn't speak, scrutinizing her and she holds her breath, anxious to hear what he has to say.
She never finds out, the oak doors exploding open before he can pass any sort of judgement and she nearly jumps out of her dress in surprise. The two doors crash back against the walls and a well dressed man about her father's age comes striding in with purpose.
"The Duke of York!" the herald calls in a shocked voice and the King frowns deeply. The Duke marches right up to the King, bypassing Madge and her parents, and drops into a hurried bow.
"What is the meaning of this?" the King asks in a rough, unhappy voice.
"Your Grace, four men have just been apprehended at a local pub. It is reported they were in the midst of plotting an assassination." There is a pause and the Duke rises up from his bow, face dark. "According to the Captain of the Guard, their plan was against your Majesty."
Madge knows it is undignified but cannot help her mouth from dropping open. Why would someone want to plot against the King (she's not really sure what assassination is, but it can't be good)? The King does not look frightened though or even angry. He smiles, wide enough that his lips look like they're cracking, blood dribbling down onto his chin.
"Well, Lord York, tell the Captain that we will punish these men immediately. Send them to the square."
There's something ominous in the way he says "the square" and Madge wonders what could be there. The Duke of York looks startled, in a bad way, his eyes widened with what could be outrage.
"Your Majesty, they have had no trial. We do not know all the facts."
"You may not, but we know enough. Give the order, Lord York." There is a brutal finality in the King's voice and the Duke straightens up, his spine stiff, his face an emotionless mask.
"Of course, your Grace."
"They are to be hung, drawn and quartered. Make sure everything is prepared."
The King is smiling again, wide and amused. The Duke turns and sweeps from the room, the door echoing closed behind him. The King stands and claps his hands, fresh and excited.
"Come along, we shall all witness justice being dealt on these traitors." His voice is raspy with anticipation and there is a cruelty in his eyes, one that makes Madge move closer to her mother, knotting her fingers in her dress. Prince Cato vibrates, his expression lit up with joy and the Queen bares her teeth in a grin, all the royal family clearly enthused at what's about to happen.
"My daughter, your Majesty-" her father begins but the King silences him with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"It will be good for the girl to see what becomes of traitors," he says, barely casting a glance at her hidden by her mother's skirts and there is something about the King that reminds Madge of the monsters under her bed.
Madge follows her parents with nervous curiosity, wondering just what "hung, drawn and quartered" means. Her mother can barely walk, her father having to support her and he looks terrified, so terrified Madge feels the sudden urge to cry. Fear flutters in her bones and all her shining dreams start to crumble, crushed to dust beneath the King's booted feet.
He leads them up onto a large wooden viewing platform hung with silks and with two large thrones, one each for the King and his Queen. It has clearly been here for quite some time, shows no sign of being fresjly erected. Whatever happens in this square, clearly the royal family watches it often. The Queen sits down on her throne and Prince Cato eagerly throws himself against the railing at the edge of the platform, desperate to be as close to the action as possible. Madge and her family shuffle over to the Queen's right and Madge looks out at the square with trepidation. There is a scaffold hanging with four ropes and four large tables with four smaller beside them. What could those be for? she wonders. Beyond that is a crowd of London's citizens, hemmed in by palace guards in sturdy armor. The people gathered look pale and frightened, hunched over and clumped closely together.
King Coriolanus moves to stand beside his son at the front of the platform and as if summoned, four burley executioners arrive, each dragging a man in chains. The King's eyes are narrowed in approval and his tongue comes out to run over his bleeding lips. Madge bites her own lip and fastens a hand in her father's doublet for comfort. The King opens his mouth to speak but the Duke of York steps to his side with urgent eyes.
"My King, these men are peasants, hungry and desperate for their families. They could not possibly have succeeded in their plot. Might there be a lighter sentence you could impose?"
King Coriolanus does not look at him, eyes shadowed.
"A lighter sentence?" he questions, voice sending shivers across Madge's skin. The Duke nods.
"Perhaps a simple beheading? Mercy might dissuade others from pursuing such avenues."
His words hang in the air for a moment before the King turns to him, eyes dark like a midnight sky.
"My cousin of York," he begins, poison in each of his words. "These men are traitors. They have conspired to commit high treason against the King's person. If we pardoned them, we would be condoning their actions. Do you condone treason against your king?"
The air feels suddenly colder and no one speaks. The Duke of York's face is pinched tight and King Coriolanus regards him with glittering eyes, something dark Madge doesn't understand hovering between them. Her father places a sweaty hand on her shoulder and finally the Duke of York's expression wilts, eyes drooping and closing.
"Of course not, your Majesty," he says, voice almost lost in the wind and the King smirks, red stains on his teeth. He turns to face the crowd, made up of haggard faces and glassy eyes. Madge is terrified but doesn't know why, a low whimper struggling from her mother's lips.
"These men have tried to assault their King, who has been anointed by God himself! The Lord has preserved us and condemned them, for there is no power on earth great enough to topple His mighty King! For their heresy and treason, we give you their blood! Let it quench the unholy fires of any foolish enough to believe they could depose a King, set upon the throne by the Lord himself!"
King Coriolanus' voice booms but no one cheers, the silence of the crowd like a thunderstorm at midnight. The nooses are placed around the necks of all four men and her father's fingers dig painfully into Madge's shoulder. One of the men whispers a prayer and another starts to cry, tears and snot mixing on his chin. The King takes a seat in his specially erected throne, draped in red velvet and smiles, his eyes bright bright bright.
He waves his hand and the floor beneath the four men disappears. Madge squeaks in shock as they thrash about, legs kicking wildly. She clamps her hands over her eyes to block out the sight but she can still hear their gurgling, choking struggle and Prince's Cato laughter, enthusiastic and energetic. Then comes a series of heavy thuds and Madge's lowers her hands to see the men have been cut down. They breathe heavily and oh, she thinks, they're still alive. She feels relief but then confusion, because hung, drawn and quartered. What does drawn and quartered mean?
Executioners in black haul the men up onto the tables and strap them down, her father's fingers bruising on her skin. Her mother swoons slightly, sagging against her husband and Madge hates the fear needling her heart. Each executioner turns to the smaller tables beside the ones where the men are tied down and pick up silver tools that glint in the late November sun. What are they-
Madge would scream but her voice seems to have died in her throat, the Executioners carving each man open. She flinches back and squeezes her eyes closed, hands clamped tight over her ears to block out their screams. It doesn't work, their agony cutting into her as they are disemboweled and her stomach curdles with horror. It goes on forever and Madge wants to wake up, safe and warm in her bed.
Silence settles like a shroud over the square and Madge chances to open her eyes. There is a moment of suspended terror and then she watches four axes rise, fall and four heads roll across the scaffold, severed from their bodies. The executioners lift each dripping head and show them to the crowd, but no one cheers, all except the royal family who applauds heartily. Madge feels sick but the brutality isn't over, each man sawed into four equal parts.
Her mother collapses, blood coats the ground, the crowd is pale and lifeless and King Coriolanus smiles, wicked like the Devil himself.
Madge of Bedford is nine years old and she has learned a harsh lesson.
There are no fairy tails here.