DAMSEL OUT OF DIS-DRESS - My First Time In Heavy Armor
THE TREBUCHET - A Siege Engine Knocks My Life 163 Degrees Sideways
THE SHIRE - Making Garb, Travel Plans and a Home in the SCA
THE FIRST NIGHT - Halfdan Was There
THE FIGHTERS - Gawking at My First Heavy Weapons Tournament
...Thank the heavens for Maghnuis’ mind reading ability, he introduces me to the fighters using the new persona name I chose this morning, Milady Arabella. Then he lets them know that this is my first event. “Heavy weapons is one of the things she has been the most interested in trying.”
“Well,” Lord Berwyn says with a sly grin. “Do you want to give it a try?”
“Of course!” I say. “I just have to figure out how to get my own armor.”
A few eyebrows fly up in surprise, but Berwyn says, “No, I mean right now. We could just throw you in my armor and then you could really see if you like it.”
I manage to squeak out, “Really?!”
They all chuckle. Someone pats my back. I think it’s Maghnuis but I’m not sure because I’m no longer legitimately on this planet anymore. Nope, I’m up in the clouds. In the stars! I’m soaring through the cosmos like Sir Saerik’s blazing comet.
Especially when the fighters convince the knight to teach me.
22 years old
They start by asking me what kind of clothing I’ve brought. We decide that the white leggings I wore with last night's outfit and the t-shirt I wore on the drive will do for putting under the armor. I’m off like a shot, back to the tent to change out of my flowy raspberry dress as quickly as I can before all the fighters decide that it’s too late in the day and they’re too hungry to teach me. On my sprint back, medieval gentles stop to stare at the wild-eyed fae creature in strange, mystical spandex flying through the camp, stirring up a cloud of dust in her wake.
I get back to the tournament field and skid to a halt, a-grin and already sweating.
A traditional Camelot dance ensues, only its participants are not the usual type. Today, it’s a clump of armored men surround a nearly-nekkid damsel. Customarily, such a clump would be leering, jeering, and anything but chivalrous, because any gallant gentleman would have long ago averted his eyes from such immodesty as my white leggings, my blessedly peachy underwear, and the shirt that barely touches my ass.
Granted, when a proper damsel stands center stage in naught but her undergarments, she is usually not on a field of combat and she should be surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, waiting for them to dress her. The appropriate configuration for such a dance to occur upon the field of combat is customarily performed by a knight surrounded by his squires and entourage.
I’m jack-all Milady Nobody from the sticks of the Inner Sea at her first event, but these fighters flock about me, piling on leather and plate metal, buckling straps, tugging things into place. They toss off “best we got” shrugs at the fact that Berwyn is one of the smaller fighters out there but I’m still swimming in his rig.
An important word for a damsel-in-dis-dress to know while being armed up.
Somebody strangles me with a neck brace. More leather on top of that, more buckles. Squinch! My tongue flops out as I pant. This shit is hot, man. And heavy!
I suddenly wonder if joining Meagan over on the fencing field would be the wiser option. I mean, come on. Most of the guys who are still left in armor are not the tank-sized bruisers or the 6’4” foe-smiting Royal Champions but I still feel like the sparrow in a pen of bulls.
The leg armor is so heavy that, after a few minutes of wearing it, the knees slip down to the bottoms of my kneecaps. The shin plates droop onto the tops of my feet, gouging into the creases of my ankles. I keep having to hoist the thing up, even though we have the belt cinched as tight as it'll go. I am a 5'6" 119-pound twitter-bird, so the last hole fits my hips, not my waist--but only when we buckle it over the breastplate padding. The loose thigh plates clank against my legs every time I move. There’s nothing for it. The leather loops that hang the leg gear from the belt are Berwyn-length and non-adjustable. He’s a bit taller than I am, and I am all extra-long torso with stubby legs.
The shoulder guards are so broad that there’s a gap left between them and the neck armor--they call it a “gorget.” (My clueless mind hears them say “gore-shay.”) The metal shoulder "pauldrons" hang so low that they’re more like pointy bicep caps on me. Lamentably, shoulder-checking is off limits in an SCA tournament.
At this point, I would probably bounce off like a pebble against the cliff anyway. Thankfully, there is also no tackling, or I fear I would look forward to being squished-like-grape. Squcck.
Inside the hockey glove that passes as a gauntlet, I have to curl my itsy-bitsy fingers so I don’t fling it off the second I lower my right arm--the one that will eventually be my “sword arm.” The shield helps keep the left glove in place.
When the guys hold the triangular hunk of wood up for me, somebody’s already stuffed the glove inside the bolted-on handle. But first I have to slip my arm through the leather strap that will keep the shield tight against my forearm. I say “tight.” What I mean is semi-tight around the arm harness, which slops around my bony birdie arm. My left hand slides into the hockey glove, and Maghnuis proceeds to lace it as tight as it’ll go.
It’s soggy in here. Fragrant and soaked with fresh sweat, still lukewarm from sitting out in the sun. I smell like overheated Berwyn.
I do not care. This is awesome!
At last, they bring the helmet over. It's black, and it’s also been sitting in the sun during this playing-at-knights dance. The gray cotton arming cap and the leather chin-strap are also soggy. That’s all right. I’m about to drench them myself, so turnabout will be fair play. The guys encase my skull in the can. Samuel pulls the thin leather ties of the chin strap tight through the holes of the helmet and knots them at the back of my head.
Now my words come out all mashed up against the leather sling around my chin. Inside this helmet, I suddenly feel like Darth Vader breathing.
They hand me Berwyn’s shiny, duct taped weapon, grab me by the shoulders, and shove me out onto the field. They’ve commandeered a real live knight for my instruction. He’s the one in the gold-black-and-comet who laid waste to Berwyn in that first tournament.
Sir Saerik is at my service, and certainly set to smite me to smudgy smithereens.
I can’t wait!
First, he teaches me the rules. (Seriously, sir? You couldn’t have said such specifications while I was safely sitting in a snug situation--that of not being gradually driven into the ground by the weight of this steel can? Methinks that was the point. To get me used to wearing it.)
In SCA combat, there is no kicking, tripping, biting, gouging, grabbing, flinging, tackling, or using one’s pointy shoulder caps as the tip of a battering ram by which to send one’s opponent flying across the field. This is not WWF. There is no smack-talk. Okay, there’s not much smack-talk. We are chivalrous lords and ladies here. There is also no spitting, stomping, elbowing, kneeing, shield-punching, pommel-punching, or general punching of any sort.
No striking the knees or below. No striking the spine. No throat-stabbery. No crotch-shots. Ass cheeks are fine but whapping someone in the tailbone is as forbidden as aiming for the spine.
Well, dang. What can we do?
Sir Saerik covers that next. But just as he’s about to teach me how to begin a bout of tournament combat, he realizes that an adjustment needs to be made. Pointing at the shield I’m hucking, he reminds the guys that somebody needs do something about Berwyn’s heraldic acorns splashed across the front of it.
See, I wasn’t allowed to cover up the obnoxious orange-and-white striped padding of the armor with his tabard, because I am not Lord Berwyn, and to wear his heraldry announces to the world, “Oi! I am Lord Berwyn!” Same with his coat-of-arms on the shield.
Right-o, good sir. So Maghnuis snags the nearest roll of duct tape--plenty of that in every direction around here. With an obnoxious fart of the roll, he unfurls a great length. Samuel grabs the end of it, and they affix it to the front of the shield like a big
You might not know it by our commingled scents, but I am now officially Not Berwyn.
At last, Sir Saerik teaches me how to salute. Some people place their feet together, whip their “blade” up to their helmet and slice it down. Some aim the salute at their opponent. Not like, “Up yours, I’m comin’ for ya, suckah,” but more like, “This salute’s for you.” Some add a bow. Some place their hilt on their heart. Some debonaire dandies cross a foot back. Some fighter-jocks are militaristic about it. ("Fighter-jock"--another important term. Also "stick-jock.") The salute is a deeply personal thing, which I’d noticed in the tournament. I am told I will come into mine.
For now, I copy my instructor, whipping my “blade” up in front of my face and giving him a good, “This one’s for you, sir.” He’s a pretty upright saluter. I kinda feel like I should add a bit of a bow so I'm a bit lower than he is, so I do.
Suddenly, all I can hear is Mr. Miyagi. “Look eye. Always look eye.”
And of course, what is certainly my inevitable fate: "Squcck. Like grape."
Once the formalities are taken care of, Sir Saerik asks for the assistance of Samuel, his sword, and his shield. Now that we have our grinning training dummy looming before me, the knight of the hour instructs me on how to throw several rudimentary blows.
After having me drop the sword and hockey glove for a moment, he has me aim at Sam like I am karate chopping him in the side of the helmet or the arm with the outside ridge of my hand. Once I get the sword back in my grip, he says that “throwing the blow” like this will ensure that I hit him with the “bladed edge” rather than the “flat.”
He teaches me how to throw “off side” by karate chopping with my palm down, and then shows me pretty much the same strikes to the legs. Then I try it all with the sword. Neither one of us are wielding a thrusting tip, so I don’t have to worry about any sort of stabbery.
All he wants me to worry about is head-head, arm-arm, leg-leg, and straight down on the crown. Awesome. Good Sir determines that I am ready to hit him.
He lowers both his sword and his shield. “Hit me in the side of the helmet like I showed you, as hard as you can.”
I haul off and whap him.
A volley of knowing smiles flies around, finally landing on Sir Saerik’s face. The front of his helmet is made of horizontal bars with one straight down the center, so I can see his every expression. This one is all Cheshire Cat smirk. The guys are practically drooling as they wait for him to deliver this thing they all know is coming.
“You do not have arms the size of Sam’s,” Sir says. “You do not have the mass and strength of Sir Mathias. Neither do I. You and I have to rely on mechanics to generate enough power to deliver a proper blow.”
My new favorite saying.
At this point, he demonstrates that my power will not come from my little birdie arms or my shoulders. It won’t even come from my back and certainly won’t come from winding up like I’m trying to lop his head off and send it sailing over the pine trees. That would be “telegraphing my shot" and a waste of time and energy. “Especially as a woman, your power will come from your legs and your hips. That’s how you’re built. As a man, I have more upper-body strength. Yours is lower, as is your center of gravity.”
Once he shows me how to root into the ground and send the energy shooting up into my hips, I beam my own Cheshire Cat grin with the smuggest Spock eyebrow ever. Because as a belly dancer, I can do that shit.
He beckons Sam and his shield back over. Slowly, I go through the motions of the first strike. Ground-legs-hips-twist, and then direct the energy down my arm, out the sword, and into my target. He has me repeat the strike over and over as he makes minute corrections to my placement and timing.
“All right. Send it out there now. Still good technique, but actually hit the shield.”
I shrug. Sam grins and hunkers down.
The impact vibrates up my arm and into my teeth. I clench them together.
“Hips first. Then the arm. Again.”
“Bend your knees more. Root down. Again.”
My eyes fly open. Sam grins. When I look at Sir Saerik, he’s beaming, too. The shiny dome of his helmet dips. “Thank you, Samuel.” He steps back in front of me. “All right now, hit me again.”
My heart thumps. My muscles seize. I suddenly don’t want to hit him like I just whaled on the shield. I don’t fully understand that. He’s wearing full armor. He’s a bloody knight. I saw him get clobbered in the head by Sir Mathias’ home-run swing of a six-foot, two-handed monster weapon, and all he did was grin, salute, and gracefully fall down “dead.”
What am I and my little birdie-armed plinking gonna do to him?
But it still feels wrong. Deep in my guts, something screams, “You can’t do that! That’s a person!”
“Come on. Right here.” He taps the side of his helmet with his sword a couple times and hunkers down into the fighting stance he showed me, just without his guard up. “Full speed. As hard as you can.”
I want to cringe, shut my eyes, and swing. I don’t. Heart racing, I go through the sequence in my mind. Ground-hips-twist-hit. Ground-hips-twist-hit. I grit my teeth and send it out there.
It’s a really different sensation than the shield. Lighter. Higher, from hitting metal versus wood, and way more mobile as it’s a wobbly object perched on a neck.
I root down. Sight on his helmet. Send the energy up. My hips slingshot. This time, the force surges through me smoothly like a whip on fire. It’s like when that trebuchet launched. All the energy flows in one continuous motion. Efficient. Fluid.
The impact of this weapon exploding against his helmet is…
I feel like I’ve just grown two-inch fangs. Drool oozes down them and it is sweet. I can see it in Sir Saerik’s eyes. In his smile. Can feel it in the reactions of the guys all around. We’ve grown a small crowd and everybody knows what just happened. That was it. That was absolutely, fucking--
The tip of his sword whacks the front of my helmet. “Keep your shield up.”
I grin and blush, fangless and back to my normal size. “Oh, yeah.”
He starts moving around me and continues having me hit him. Then he has me alternate sides of his helmet. Whenever I drop the shield, he plinks me in the head. Whenever I lift it too high, he swats me in the thigh plate.
“All right. Before we actually engage, for a second here, lower your sword and shield. I’m going to hit you now so you know which blows to count as good and which ones to reject. All right?”
I gulp. “Okay.” I’m back to squeaking.
“Take a good stance now.”
I assume the position, but I keep the sword and shield down like he had earlier. My heart races again. I take in a deep, calming breath and--
My brows twitch. My eyes dart from side to side, focus back on him. That was it? The helmet absorbed so much of the blow. It was loud and jarring. Shocking. But it didn’t remotely hurt. Not anywhere.
He grins. Then he demonstrates other types of blows. “This is too light. This is glancey. This is good.” Ka-BLAM! “This is too light. This is tippy.”
I mirror his grin. Tippy.
I'm not completely sure Ardo’s blow was terribly tippy, but I wasn’t in Sir Vettorio’s helmet and I’m not a knight, so what do I know? Well, now I know what tippy feels like, and I know what good feels like.
“All right,” Sir Saerik tosses off. “Let’s just do a little light sparring, hmm?”
Annnnnd my heart is up in my throat again. But now it’s more excitement than fear. It’s a weird excitement. Like hearing that ominous, plodding ratchety-rachety-rachety as a roller coaster climbs up the biggest hill. You know what’s coming. You know it’s going to be awful, and you know how badly you really, really want it!
We start moving around each other. He begins by telegraphing his first shots so I know what to block with. As we go, he shows me how to defend with the sword and makes corrections on my flinchy, swiping shield. “You don’t need to move it much to keep from getting hit.” The next time he strikes, I see that. It doesn’t take much at all.
Defending with the sword is a little trickier.
“Are you planning on hitting me back?”
I blink. “Oh. Heh-heh.”
Over here in the deep end, I start to glub in my attempts to keep it all straight. Keep the shield up. Keep grounded. Use your hips. Remember to strike--shit! Defend! Ka-BLAM!
He stops moving. “You are now dead.”
“Customarily, you would fall to the ground, but we’re not going to waste time with that today.”
Awesome, because I’m sure I’d spend more time dragging my ass and Berwyn’s ten-ton rig off the ground than up here getting hit by your Sirly self.
“Whenever you’re struck, you’ll just acknowledge if it was a good blow or not, and then we’ll move on.”
We go again.
Ka-WHACK! “Good.” Ka-BLAM! “Good.” Ka-BLOOEY! “Ugh…really good.” Ka-FWIP! I blink. “Um…” I tentatively shake my head. “That felt…kinda…”
“You caught a bit of it with the corner of your shield. Well done.”
My eyes light up as my fangs consider a comeback. I stalk him a little harder. I still get hit twice for every five times I miss him, but I’m starting to see things. I’m too slow to do anything about it, yet it’s no longer a complete blur. Just a…mostly blur. Unfortunately, my arms are starting to fatigue and I’m losing wind. It’s like dragging around a bag of pots, pans, and bricks while trying to dance.
“Is there any particular reason that you’re aiming at my shield?”
I try to tag his head.
My whole body freezes. An agonized groan squeezes out my throat. Right as I extended my arm, the tip of his sword caught the exposed flesh in the gap of the arm guard. Now that does hurt. In fact, it sings a screechy song down into the marrow of my arm bone. Not quite like hitting your un-funny bone, but close.
Sir Saerik hovers back there out of range, watching me.
In my best tiny-kitten voice, I say, “Good.”
He grins. “Normally you would drop your shield and replace it with your sword, holding your hand behind your back. But we’re not going to waste time with that today either. Just call it.”
“Okay,” I mewl. I’d really kinda like to drop this sword. Not like I can feel where I’m gripping it. All I can feel is where he’s struck me. It’s already bright red.
“That’s gonna leave a bruise tomorrow,” Sam guffaws, to the roars and chortles of the onlookers. In their eyes, I can see that this is a badge of honor--that if you’re gonna get whupped, at least you can hack it and have the bruises to prove it.
I try to hit my comet-clad Miyagi’s thigh. It’s not there. He strikes. CLUNK! Hah! Got all of the shield on that one. I zip out of range--well, more like lurch with a tin can clatter. WHAP!
Ass on fire, I yipe like a kicked little dog.
Sir Saerik chuckles. “That is a wrap.”
I blink, then pout. “You—you mean we’re done? Am I supposed to salute now or—?”
“No, as in a shot that wraps around to the back side.” He demonstrates it in the air, swinging like a low tennis lob, then turns his hand over at the last second so that the “blade” would strike to the back side of somebody’s thigh.
“Ohhh…wrap. I get it.”
We go again. My arms are so tired that I’m slow to defend with the sword and all I can do is hide behind the shield, so I start trying to stay away from him until I’m ready to hit him.
I try to do that wrap thing--I get hit in the arm again. I try to hit his head--I get wrapped in the ass again. I launch in with a growl and try to do one of those side-to-side, over-here-no-over-there combos I saw the fighters doing all afternoon. The sword flips out of my hand. Dang it! Thank goodness for the string connecting it to the hockey glove. They call it a "lanyard."
As I scramble away, I swing the weapon up, wrestle with it, try to shove the shield between his sword and my body. I get hit in the face and the arm--"Double good!"--skitter away from him, finally get ahold of the sword and wrangle it back into my grip. I launch back in. He shrugs me off and I stumble over his disappearing act. Ka-CLANG!
I suck wind. Plant the shield and sword tip in the ground. Hunch over them. Pant. He laughs, barely working for it.
“Come on, Arabella! Get him!”
“Hit him, Arabella!”
It takes me a second to remember that Arabella is me. My new SCA name. I heft the sword and shield back into place and trudge back toward my tormentor. I swing again. My arm completely gives out. The sword sort of clatters and rolls down the front of his shield. We all laugh.
“Crap,” I wheeze and haul myself away to reset.
My muscles are quivery jello. My lungs are smoked. My boots feel too big for me as I try to remember what a proper fighting stance is.
And then there’s a gold-and-black comet streaking in at me. He mashes my shield against me, tangling up my sword. Ka-clang-bang-TWONGGGG!
I’m slow to blink. Even slower to grunt out a laugh. In less than a second, he’s hit both sides of my helmet and blasted down on my crown. My mouth goes mushy as my lips spread across my face. “Well struck, sir,” I slur. This time I do let myself fall over “dead” with arms, legs, and shield akimbo. The sword rolls away and pulls short by the lanyard.
The sky is pale blue with blotches of overcast. Thankfully the sun isn’t pummeling me into the ground. Faces appear overhead. Their grins are all broad. I try to grin back. Best I can manage is to let the corners of my mouth melt in a somewhat ear-ish direction.
Sir Saerik’s head joins them. He’s beaming behind those metal bars. “Shall we call that a good start and get some supper?”
“Yes,” I squeak. “Thank you."
He offers me his hand. It takes Sam and Berwyn to help hoist me to my feet because the hockey glove won’t let me grip Sir Saerik's gauntlet.
Maghnuis is busy laughing and snapping pictures as the dance ensues in reverse. At least it’s not completely a damsel-dance anymore. I peel my hand and arm out of the shield, then shake off the other hockey glove, lanyard and all. Thankfully, I have a cadre of helpful burlies to untie cords and unbuckle straps so they can pry me out of the steel can. I don’t think my trembling hands could have accomplished it.
The helmet clears my head. The breeze is heaven against my sweaty skin, and I let out a groan of relief.
“So?” Sam asks. “Did you like it?”
A semi-hysterical laugh falls out my face because I can barely lift my arms to let them get at the buckles. “Oh, my God. That was a thousand times more fun than I ever imagined!”
As the armor plates peel away, I don’t know what to do with it all. Berwyn waves me away. “I’ll bring it back to my tent and lay it all out to dry. Just get yourself hydrated and make sure you eat well tonight.”
"I'm sure you'll sleep well."
Nodding with equal certainty, I fling myself at him and slather him with a hug coated with his own old sweat and a gallon of mine. “Thank you soooo, so much!”
“You’re very welcome. We’re glad to have you aboard.”
“I am so thrilled to be here!” My voice is overloud, as shaky and jerky as my body. With my quivering hand, I try not to spill the red Gatorade someone pushes into my reach. No doubt I'll splash it down my white t-shirt. No doubt my equally white leggings are showing off my sweaty ass and more, but I'm too exhausted to care. I feel like Lurch as I make my farewells and dole out thanks to everybody who stuck around to help. I give a particularly choked up hug to Sir Saerik. “That was so amazing! You are such an incredible teacher.”
He beams. “Then I hope we’ll see you on the field very soon.”
“As soon as I can. I would be right back out here tomorrow if there was fighting and I had my own armor.”
"Well, if you ever find yourself in Nordskogen, you're more than welcome to come build your own suit with my household. We've got excellent armorers and we can show you all the techniques. Until we meet again, Milady, keep practicing." With one gallant bow of his head, Good Sir takes his leave.
Once I learn that Nordskogen is the Twin Cities, I cringe. I've never driven in Minneapolis before. That thought sets me on edge, so the crew launches off about the various things I’ll need to get started, along with their assurances that they’ll do whatever they can to help.
One of the guys says that he’s got time off next weekend and could drive up to show me how to put together my own rig. "It's so easy," he says. "So much of your starter-gear can be fudged with sports and military equipment, then hidden beneath a tabard if you're on a tight budget."
I am on an extremely tight budget, so there is no doubt I will have to start out fudging everything possible until I can afford to get down to the Nordskogen smithy. Hal had promised to teach me all of this before his untimely death--both the fighting and building my own armor.
That thought is like a genuine sword thrust to my chest. The glaring absence of my fiancé gives the blade a little twist, because Kyle is the one who's been encouraging me to make my lifelong fighter-chick dreams a reality for the past two years. He would have taught me himself, as he is a black belt in Shotokan karate, but it's a little hard to teach someone how to throw a proper blow across two thousand miles.
Both Kyle's and Hal's boots are quite a big order to fill, especially in combination, but everybody who has stepped up has been so amazing. My throat closes again and I battle down the tears of overwhelmed gratitude. This is how it’s been since the moment I discovered the SCA. So much welcome, so much help.
This horde of rough and gallant fighters leaves me certain that it won’t be long before I’m back out here among them--without having to hash out somebody’s else's heraldry so I can play.
When it's all done, sweaty Lurch drags herself back to camp alongside a chuckling Maghnuis. Now he’s wearing the Cheshire Cat grin, and he looks like he gobbled the canary after all that machination to finally get me into armor. I give him as much of a hug as I dare, since he didn't get all nasty with fighting today. “I’ll give you a real hug after I’ve showered," I say.
“Not to worry." He pulls me in for a good one anyway, then leaves me alone to shed my drenched clothing.
With a spastic hand, I unzip Maghnuis’ tent and collapse on my bedding. I don’t even bother zipping it closed. The sun beats down through the opening onto half my arm and my head. It’s scorching. I don’t care. I can’t bloody move for some minutes.
When I do, it’s to roll onto my back and stare at the curved ceiling of the tent in the most rapturous elation.
That was it.
I have been waiting for this moment since I was five, watching Jana of the Jungle and Wonder Woman. I have been waiting for this moment since I was seven and saw that gladiatrix on TV, and since I was seventeen when I started writing one of my own. I have been waiting for this moment all my life.
I have officially become a Shield-Maiden of Northshield.
Okay, once I get a shield I’ll be a shield-maiden. I’ll also needed a sword. And some armor. And I’ll need to truly learn how to use them all. Oh yeah, and an authorization card, which will require a test of such skills.
But once I get all that, I will officially be a Shield-Maiden of Northshield.
For my first sword-brothers.
And for Berwyn, for Saerik, for James.
*deepest bow and salute*
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: MAYA - DANCE, DRUMS, DREAMS - My First Time Dancing Around the Fire
--OR: You can check out how GLADIATORS OVERTOOK MY LIFE shortly before I put on armor for the first time.
--OR: If you want to know how I became obsessed with wanting to learn how to fight in armor, you can find that HERE.
--OR: You can find all my adventures in learning the Arts of Self-Defense HERE.