MAGNUS SVENGAR AND THE TIGRESS
Copyright 2018, Sarah Hartwell
Dream 20/21 August 2018
This dream was unusual because it played out from 2 points of view – my own as a protagonist, and that of Magnus (where I was an observer). It also resumed after a bathroom visit.
After the last war, everything went to shit. Not so much “society is three square meals away from breakdown,” but once the stores had been looted, the fuel had run out and the power went down, and national communication and co-ordination broke down we soon reverted to a tribal society. Or so I was told. I was born at the end of “civilisation as we know it” in Britain. I grew up in a tribe and by the time I was in my thirties we were nomadic. Life was a case of “find a bunker, drive out or kill the occupants, take their weapons, use their resources, repel invaders, move on.” After a decade of this we were a small, mobile, well organised militia. We lost a few members, we gained a few and, heck, we probably even ate a few of the vanquished when other supplies ran short. We didn’t envisage life being any different.
By the time I’m speaking of, the fuel for vehicles had run out. The country tribes went pastoral and back to grass-powered horsepower. The urban tribes were mainly on foot because riding animals didn’t do so well in the crumbling, rubbish-strewn and contaminated cities. Why does it take so many words to tell you what we took for granted?
Things started to fall apart for us when we attacked Bear’s bunker. Bear was big, mean and wore a coat made out of his namesake – apparently obtained when the zoo animals got eaten. We had some home-made fire-spitter guns and some taser weapons running off home-made batteries, rifles and hand-guns (though the ammunition was now home-made). These were good for putting the fear of god into most opponents before we rushed in and took what we wanted, killing anyone that tried to stop us. For close quarters it was mainly knives and older weapons looted from museums. Fighting style? Mostly we made it up as we went along. I used a sword right-handed and a stabbing knife left-handed and fought like a woman possessed. Bear was different. He was fearless. His band kept us at bay till both sides ran out of fire-power and when we engaged at close quarters he fought like a berserker and put the fear of god into us. We lost a few that day and got nothing for our efforts, and when Bear decided to hunt us down, things changed for the worse.
After the last war, much of Western Europe descended into chaos. Too used to the “every man for himself” culture, society stuttered when necessities ran short and then devolved into tribalism. Unable to communicate effectively, central governments could no longer co-ordinate their diminished resources, and bands of armed rebels took advantage of the situation. Luckily we were different. It was a long ingrained cultural thing. Even without a central authority, our society continued to function as a coherent whole. Alternative methods of communication were put in place until limited power supply networks went online. No town or village was isolated. With everyone co-operating, it took surprisingly little time to become a functioning country again. We had a vested interest in preserving our culture, and we had an interest in re-civilising the rest of the continent. Once the northern countries were functioning, we spread southwards and westwards, where the worst of the chaos was found. Russia and its allied eastern European countries had, naturally, formed their own, orderly commonwealth and had no need of outside help. Colour and creed had finally become incidental among the depleted population of Europe.
For half a century we neo-Vikings spread as far as the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula and the western European coast. Sometimes we had to impose a new order onto those entrenched in tribalism, but bit by bit we re-forged Europe out of the ruins of war. The British Isles was the last stronghold of armed tribes that resisted re-civilisation. Powered by steam and sail, our ships landed along the length of the eastern coastline of Britain and marched westwards. Those that could not be talked round – and many feared our proposals simply because they had never known an orderly society – required a tougher approach. On the map, the arrows representing our forces had advanced a long way westwards. But in part of the old county of Essex, near the former capital of London, we met fierce resistance from one militia band. We did not intend to be conquerors, but sometimes we had to suppress resistance before we could restore order.
I don’t know what her name was, and maybe she didn’t know either, but she saw herself as a Boudicca for the new age. Unable to see the benefits of civilised life, she fought like a berserker, even though the resistance were now reduced to using hammers and swords. She drew people to her militia’s cause. She didn’t seem to known when she was beaten. I called her the tigress.
With Bear we’d made a grave miscalculation. He and his allies fought like men with nothing left to lose except their lives, and we were the ones on the run. They had one aim – revenge on the armed militia that had slaughtered their families. They hunted us. Their dogs tracked us through the overgrown ruins and post-war forests. The only way to survive was to disband and lose ourselves individually under new identities. I was alone. For a long time – or so it felt – I lived a hand to mouth existence while things around me changed. The Vikings arrived from continental Europe. Sweeping westward they crushed the tribes and moulded the splinters of society into a new shape – rebuilding a civilisation I had never known – and they made a coherent society out of the fractured tribes. Old technologies came back online. Cities emerged from the cleared tangles of greenery. They killed Bear and some of his people in a stand-off. Just as fast as society had crumbled, it reformed as the invaders imposed order on the familiar chaos.
Then, one day, they came for me. I’d been running with a small group, keeping out of sight of the Viking invaders, finding refuge in the streets of Lunvik, the former capital city. They took our weapons and offered us our limited freedom in return for our oaths accepting the restoration of an English society under Viking rule. Work with them and rebuild. It was enticing, but it was not the England had known all my life. While most of my fellows agreed to their terms, I held out. I would not bow to invaders. I did not want to become a docile wife and mother.
So I found myself before Magnus Svengar, the commander of their English campaign. We were similar ages and neither of us would back down. He had mahogany coloured hair and beard, both untrimmed, and clear blue eyes that seemed to weigh up a person’s soul. He said he understood it was hard for me to accept the new regime, but it was time for England to be restored to a civilised state. Our raiding parties had to end. Electric power was being restored, there would soon be transport networks as roads were cleared. City streets were clear and people had purpose. Magnus pointed to some screens – he already had a surveillance networks throughout Lunvik, his engineers had restored the CCTV networks in this and major towns, and even along the main highways. I was free to leave, but wherever I went he could watch me and ensure I caused no inconvenience or unrest. He told me I might think of myself as a Boudicca for the modern age, but I should rest assured that I was just a troublesome rebel and like all the other troublesome rebels I would either come round to his way of thinking, or I would probably starve in the countryside with no-one willing to help me. As long as I caused trouble only to myself he would tolerate me. But if I tried to incite rebellion ….. his face became grim. I tried to hold his gaze, but for once I was first to look away.
Weaponless, I left.
She was a tigress all right – a caged tigress. She knew she had no power and no allies, but she would not come round to a civilised way of thinking. We would not let one little tigress stand in the way of restoring England. She had left – and we didn’t stop her – but we could keep tabs on her. The little tigress might snarl and spit, but her fangs had been pulled and her claws cut. With power and sanitation working, with trade established in food and necessities, her way of life was no longer attractive to other people.
Wherever I went I found little sympathy. The Vikings were restoring order and the English adopted the new domesticated lifestyle. Work, get paid, spend money. The streets were clean. The trade routes were open. There was even talk of a steam-railway. The unrest was a mere murmur. I tried to find the National Front, our multi-ethnic resistance against the Viking invaders, but even they had bowed to the Viking yoke. So I walked westwards. Before my interview with the Viking commander there had been talk of the last Bloodsword. It was old magic, or old tech, and it was powerful. A black sword that was wielded by a righteous warrior and thirsted for enemy blood. It had once belonged to the king of all England and now lay in a sacred pool in a sanctuary in the West Country, or maybe as far away as Wales.
I walked and found I was not alone. By the time we reached the sanctuary there were as many as a hundred of us.
By god I wish this tigress fought beside me, not against me. She didn’t know when she was defeated. When everything else fails, people are brought together by myth and legend. We’d tracked her along her whole route. We’d watched her attempts to contact the National Front (which no longer existed). We also watched the others who were drawn together by the myth of a black-bladed sword that could be wielded only by the true ruler of Britain. We even had surveillance cameras at her destination – an old cathedral, half-ruined in the war – where a blackened blade stood in a murky pool of water, its guard and grip making the sign of a cross. I admired her resolve, however misguided it was.
Though I consider myself a leader and a diplomat, I have warrior blood. The tigress has warrior dreams. If only I could talk her round to my point of view - think what children we could have, this tigress and I!
The Bloodsword was an old, old legend. Sufficiently advanced technology could be mistaken for magic. The Bloodsword was such an artefact. Draw the black blade from the pool only if you would wield against your enemies. If you tried to put it back in the pool you would lose your mind. Of the hundred or so of us, none dared touch the blackened grip, let alone draw it from the pool. Then a man, who was here with his wife and baby, bravely pulled the sword from its resting place. The blade looked oily. His eyes widened and, with a look of horror, he tried to put the blade back. As it slid into the oily water, he screamed as though his soul were being pulled out of his body and he curled on the ground, his mind gone. He lay at the feet of his wife, babbling incoherently, his eyes wide with terror. No-one else dared touch the sword.
I hesitated only a moment. In my mind I saw myself sliding the sword into Magnus’s ribcage, I saw his blue eyes grow cloudy in death. I walked to the edge of the pool and grasped the handle, pulling the old sword from its resting place. The handle released a static electric charge that prickled my flesh. My blood sang in my veins. The sword understood my hunger for revenge and accepted me. As I held it up it felt like part of me. I promised it would drink Viking blood.
“Magnus!” I yelled, “I challenge you!”
Fashioning a sheath out of my coat, I strapped the Bloodsword to my back and turned back towards Lunvik, back towards Magnus Svengar.
(If the alarm had not gone off I might have pursued the dream further. Would Magnus, with his warrior ancestry, accept the challenge – in the dream he seemed well able to fight one-on-one - or simply use modern technology to neutralise the tigress? What was the sword capable of? Despite the anachronistic form, it seemed to fizz with power. The tigress was determined she was not going to be a wife and mother – what place could she have in Magnus’s society? Magnus used the word “shield maiden” when he thought of her. The tigress did not equate herself with Boudicca, she just wanted to preserve her way of life in the face of “new ways” that were actually “old ways” from before the war; she had no experience of any other lifestyle. My dream conjured up a Magnus that I would have found very attractive and persuasive in real life. My dream-self felt an equal measure of fascination and hatred. Magnus really seemed to care about society as whole.
I decided this needed more thought.)
I had barely made it outside of the building when I saw the familiar mahogany hair and beard. Pulling the sword from its impromptu sheath on my back I raised it and yelled again “Magnus Svengar – I challenge you.”
He barely blinked. “I accept!” he called back. He had two of his men with him. One handed him an unsheathed silvery sword that contrasted the black, oily-looking blade I held. I felt the strange tingling in my hand where I held the grip.
“As you can see,” he called, “I have no shield – that way I don’t have an advantage.”
I laughed, and rushed him.
She may have been a fighter among people who’d never lifted a blade longer than a butter-knife, but she was self-taught and had no style or discipline. The most frightening thing was her wild laugh. A huddle of people watched from the safety of the cathedral porch. For a short while I parried her sword swings, letting her use up energy. My men – there were only two of them – stood back.
He seemed afraid to properly engage in the fight – was he frightened of me? But I noticed that none of my blows got past his defence. He brushed them aside. Then there was a twitch and a flick of his wrist and the point of his sword sent my black blade flying into the air to land on the ground. At the same time he kicked my legs from under me and as I sprawled on the ground, reaching for the Bloodsword his boot came down on my right arm – my sword arm – firmly enough to pin it down without breaking bones.
I decided this need finishing. I flicked her sword out of her hand with a trick that a novice would have seen – and countered – and I kicked her legs from under he, which was unsporting, but probably the best way from keeping this furious tigress from hurting herself or doing something truly stupid like running onto my blade. Besides, it was a ceremonial blade and not intended for fighting in earnest, though she wasn’t to know that. I handed it back to my clerk. The tigress was sprawled on her belly with my boot on her elbow and unable to do me any harm unless she wanted to dislocate her own shoulder.
“It’s a sideshow toy, but a broken and dangerous one,” said my other man. He had picked the black sword up carefully in a thick cloth. We spoke in our own language so the tigress couldn’t understand us, “When someone tries to pull it from its rest they get an electric shock and should let go. If they do pull it out, they get a very uncomfortable feeling from the electricity running to ground. Because it’s broken, if they try to put it back in the rest they get a huge zap.”
“Enough to kill?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Some people are more susceptible than others. Someone must have discharged it before she got hold of it. The metalwork is pretty badly made – cast, not forged.”
“Break it,” I told him, and watched as he easily broke the blade from the handle, spilling some wiring and electrical components.
I saw one of Magnus’s men pick up the Bloodsword in a folded cloth. He turned it over and over in his hand, looking closely at it while talking to Magnus in their own language. The boot on my arm was hurting now and I couldn’t change position. I watched, horrified, as the man snapped the blade clean away from the grip and small chips of metal pattered onto the ground.
“You’re lucky, little tigress,” said Magnus in my language, “Your mythical sword carried an electrical charge and could have killed you. Now I am going to remove my foot from your arm and you are going to stand up and not attack me.”
He removed his foot, and I shifted to a sitting position. He did not tell me what to do.
“Okay, sitting is good,” he sighed, like an exasperated parent. “This time, little tigress I am not going to let you walk away. Who knows what damage you might do – most likely to yourself.”
She was furious. I told her to stand, so she sat instead. I asked if she was afraid to look me in the eye and she decided to stand after all. It was just a little childish psychology. My clerk moved quietly behind her. If she did something stupid he could grab hold of her. I told her that this time I would not simply let her go.
“You are going to spend some time in a detention centre,” I told her, “You’ll have food, something to read, writing materials … if you can’t read we can teach you - in your own language. We’ll keep you informed about the outside world. We hope you’ll start to see the benefits of a world where you don’t have to fight all the time.”
“You’re not going to give me to one of your men?” I asked. That was what often happened in the tribes. It was why I learnt to fight.
Magnus laughed. So did his companions. One of them – the one who’d broken the Bloodsword, said, “Give me a tigress who’d stab me in the night? Some gift that would be! Besides one wife is enough for me. I get an earful if I tread mud into the house.”
Hands tied, apparently for my safety as much as anyone else’s, I was loaded onto a cart and later into a closed carriage drawn by a steam engine. The journey back to Lunvik took a little over a day by railway, though I was told it would get faster once the tracks were properly repaired. The countryside sped past faster than I imagined possible. It went through villages that were being rebuilt, through fields that were cleared of brambles and were being farmed. It took us right into Lunvik itself, and other trains were heading in the opposite direction, removing wagon-loads of broken masonry.
As our paths diverged again, Magnus lifted his sword and saluted me.
When we disembarked the train and my staff took charge of the little tigress I lifted my sword in salute. Her determination deserved acknowledgement.
“I challenge you, little tigress – I challenge you to become a citizen.”
“My name is ……” but whatever it was, it was lost in a hiss of steam from the locomotive.
That was the last time I saw her.
(Some friends wanted the story to continue)
I was in the detention centre for about 3 years. At first the loss of freedom was hard, but I used the time in learning. I even found out why Magnus had compared me to Boudicca, the Iceni rebel who had done so much damage to Roman towns in England. I learnt a lot about British history, right up to the war that had plunged us back into the dark ages. From being a detainee I drifted into the role of teacher to other detainees and told them how I had come from being a fighter to becoming civilised. Now and again I saw Magnus Svengar on television – yes we had a limited television service now – in the common room.
When we arrived here, England had reverted to a feudal system with its patchwork of fiefdoms and squiredoms. Each town and village was someone’s empire. I spent my time negotiating, persuading the petty lords that they should become part of something larger. I heard grievances and settled disputes, imposed restitution for some and penalties for others. I had become commander-in-chief of East Anglia, but I never lost sight of being a small part in restoring a unified England and establishing friendly terms with her neighbours.
The younger women were fluttering about like small birds looking for seed. “Magnus Svengar is coming,” they twittered, “the Lion of England is coming here!”
That was what they called him now – he was the mahogany-maned Lion of England (that mane being rather more neatly trimmed of late). He was respected by most and practically worshipped by a few, but his public image was always the level-headed commander, the fair judge and the composed diplomat.
The twittering continued for days: I so want to meet him! Is he married? What is he like? He has such lovely eyes! If he looks at me I’ll faint for sure! I thought to myself “I’ve met him. He’s just a man. I tried to kill him. He put me here. I don’t know what I think of him.” I put it out of my mind and got on with some work, ignoring the fluttering women and eye-rolling men around me.
I was looking forward to returning to Lunvik for a while to meet with the other commanders-in-chief in person. The telephone system was good these days, but meeting in person followed by some good wine – the French reds were doing nicely now – was a chance to catch up with old comrades, discuss progress and catch up on gossip. The train service to Lunvik was reliable and horse coaches took us from the station to municipal hall.
Sometimes I thought about returning home and settling down, but I wasn’t made for kicking my heels as a government official in a provincial town, where the hardest problem was organising the rota for clearing horse-droppings from the high street, and going home at night to a clutter of children and a wife who told me off for getting my tunic dirty only two days after she’d laundered it. When asked if I had a wife and family I replied that I was married to my job and that England was my family. The answer seemed to go down well.
We were told to expect a visit from the commanders-in-chief. They wanted to see the educational and rehabilitation work of the detention centre and the reconstruction work carried out by former detainees. The girls fluttered even more and the rest of us rolled our eyes. I’d already decided to shrink into the background. I’d already seen the mahogany-maned Lion of England on TV – his hair and beard a little more streaked with grey, his face a little more lined - and was only mildly curious.
Marta, who liaised between the government and the centre, gave us the timetable for the visit. The commanders wanted to see the classrooms, the living accommodation and talk to some of the staff and detainees. We should be respectful, but not obsequious and definitely no fluttering and twittering. I asked to be excused from the visit, but was told “no,” because I was an example of a savage that had become a citizen, and moreover one that helped others make the same transition.
We planned to visit the detention centre where some of the rebels were rehabilitated. We’d been careful to disperse them between different centres and to quash any riots firmly and quickly. Though I disliked heavy-handedness, the velvet glove sometimes hid an iron hand. There had been very few executions and each one weighed heavily on me. Was there something else I could have done? Some other way? For the most part, the challenge of rebuilding and the benefits of being part of something greater, was persuasive. So much of the land was empty or ruined, the population scattered and depleted. Restoring communications – railways, a postal service, telegraph and television – had been priorities. Putting people to work repairing old infrastructure left them little time for dissent and put money in their pockets. For the most part, trading replaced raiding.
When the delegation arrived I was surprised at how tired and travel-worn they looked. They took over several rooms for offices and meetings and the fluttering girls hovered around with refreshments or just embarrassingly ready to run errands.
The twittering turned to: He shook my hand …. He held onto my hand longer than yours …. He has such lovely eyes … don’t you think that young lieutenant is gorgeous? Etc. And then I was told that Magnus Svengar wanted to talk to various people individually and I tried to make myself scarce, but one of the twitterers came to me with a message. The commander wanted to interview me.
He was sitting at the large wooden desk, writing in a ledger, when I entered the room. He didn’t even look at me, but gestured for me to sit opposite. There was sense of déjà vu. The last time we had faced each other across a table was before I went in search of the Bloodsword. When he finally stopped writing and looked up at me I held his gaze. This time we both broke our gaze by unspoken agreement.
“I see the tigress has become a citizen,” he said after a pause.
After so many years – six? Seven? – I’d forgotten her, this modern-day Boudicca trying to lead her people in revolt. She looked different, she walked with dignity and seemed at peace with herself. The rough edges had been worn away, but she still looked me square in the eye. This time she was unafraid rather than challenging. I liked that in people. I preferred to treat people as equals, as long as they worked with us rather than against us.
“Frankly I’m surprised to see you still here. Tell me how things have worked out for you,” I said.
She laughed, but lightly rather than defiantly. “After beating myself against the bars for a few months I got tired. I improved my reading and writing and escaped into books instead. … I now know who Boudicca was.”
“And the tigress came a teacher,” I said.
“My name is Kat. And I never was a match for the Lion of England,” she replied.
Aha! The little tigress has become a cat, but I must not forget that even cats have sharp claws when provoked.
When I mentioned Boudicca he raised his eyebrows. I hadn’t known my own country’s history and maybe I’d been on the way to repeating it.
“I never liked that nickname,” he said finally, “It’s nice to be considered English, but I don’t see myself as a lion.”
We talked for about twenty minutes – about my work, my thoughts and views, even a little about my past now that I could look critically on it. He steepled his fingers and nodded as he listened, prompting me now and again for details, for what could still be improved and, surprisingly what mistakes I thought had been made. He would write it down later, I knew, but for now he gave me his undivided attention. Then, when there was no more to tell, he stood up – a signal that the interview was over.
I offered my handshake and, strangely, when he took my hand he lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
When I left his office the twitterers fluttered around me and began their own interrogation of me.
It had been a long day and I wanted nothing better than to settle down to review my notes and enjoy a glass or two or French red. But my ledger stayed closed and as I looked at the bottle of wine some thoughts formed in my head.
Like many of the staff, my home is in a building not far from the detention centre. It’s small, but most of the time I’m elsewhere so I don’t need much space. I’m on one of the upper floors. I got used to having only as many possessions as I could carry and old habits die hard – or not at all. A sofa-bed, a work-table and chair, somewhere to wash and somewhere to cook – that was all I needed. No TV – these were only found in common rooms and pubs – but I subscribed to a newspaper in order to keep up with current affairs. I’d laid the newspaper on the table when there was a knock at the door.
I rarely get visitors and didn’t know who to expect when I opened the door. Magnus Svengar, in his black coat, stood in the doorway with a bottle of wine in one hand and two glasses in the other.
“May I come in?” he asked.
In fact he had right of entry into any home in East Anglia and no-one could refuse him entry.
“I thought I’d share,” he said, holding up the bottle, “And talk to someone who isn’t afraid to tell me when I’m wrong.”
Kat looked surprised, or shocked even, and invited me to sit on the sofa. She sat at her work-table and apologised that she didn’t have a corkscrew. That wasn’t a problem – I had one of those utility tools that has everything from a corkscrew to nose-hair tweezers. I poured and we sipped the wine (it was not bad considering it was young and the vineyards were still a work in progress) and this time I told her about my past and why we Vikings had taken it upon ourselves to re-civilise western Europe. She listened, and nodded, and asked thoughtful questions, and slowly we grew drunk together because the moderately good wine was stronger than I realised.
Because she looked uncomfortable on the wooden chair, I moved to one end of the sofa and suggested she sat somewhere more comfortable.
“I don’t bite,” he said.
As we got towards the bottom of the bottle, I found his arm resting along the back of the sofa and I settled against his shoulder to continue our increasingly blurry conversation. We compared the state of modern England to past ages and decided it was “mostly late Victorian, but with television and better hospitals.” Then, because it was dark and raining outside, I suggested he stay the night.
I hadn’t expected the invitation to stay, and I was surprised and honoured. Kat folded out the sofa-bed and I held her in my arms as she told me more personal things about her past, things that a gentleman does not write down in a ledger. I stroked her cheek and pulled her close, telling her I was not like those others, and that she would have made a great shield maiden (I was rather tipsy by this point and possibly not making as much sense as I would have liked.) I’m not sure when – or how - the clothes came off, because that had not been my intention.
That night I rode the great Lion of England until he roared. And then I promised to be his shield-maiden, because I am just not cut out to be a docile wife.
I have the blood of warriors in my veins and Kat has the heart of a warrior, though she is more disciplined and chooses her battles wisely. And though we may not have warrior children, together my Lioness and I will nurture this new England.