En garde, wench!

Bodice laced, cutlass in hand, the author does battle—medieval style

Katherine Gillock “Aerwin” in leather scalemale battles to the exhaustion with Candice McCasland.

Katherine Gillock “Aerwin” in leather scalemale battles to the exhaustion with Candice McCasland.

Photo By David Robert

It’s a warm, breezy evening in Wingfield Park, and I’m facing down a line of battle-hardened fighters. Sunlight filters through the canopy of trees, glinting brightly off chain mail and plated armor. Silence falls, broken only by shouts and scuffles from the nearby basketball court.

“Blades—up!” I holler. Long swords, staffs and battleaxes hiss through the air in unison.

“Fox across!” That’s me, charging—alone—toward the enemy, sword in hand, which means I have about seven seconds to live.

This is Amtgard, an international association of role players that stages live-action combat with medieval/fantasy themes. (Think Dungeons and Dragons but with foam weapons instead of dice.) Founded in Texas in 1983, Amtgard has grown to 12 kingdoms across the United States, with smaller groups in such countries as Korea, Finland and Russia. Nevada has chapters in Reno, Carson City, Elko, Yerington and Las Vegas. Reno’s Shire of the Desert Moon, founded in 1999 by Sebastian Calica (the current shire champion), has about 28 members and hopes eventually to gain enough members to become its own kingdom.

For today, I am Anachronista McFoamblade, a valiant warrior woman in semi-authentic wench-wear. Garb—the term “costume” is frowned upon—is crucial to the Amtgard experience, so I’ve assembled a passably medieval outfit: a full-length chemise (a white, poofy-sleeved nightgown), a tan lace-up bodice and a long brown skirt. Alas, when it comes to shoes, I’ve chosen unwisely; my high-heeled leather boots look cute but aren’t much use on the battlefield.

We’re playing Fox Across, otherwise known as Beat Up on the Reporter. It’s an elimination game, starting with me on one side and everyone else on the other. If I can slay someone before I get killed, that person joins my side. The winning team is the one that ends up with all the players. But I seem to have drawn the wrath of a visiting wizard from Carson City who’s already gone medieval—several times—on this hapless wench’s ass.

“Carson people hit a little harder than we do,” confides a teammate. This I already know.

Dressed to kill

Amtgarders are encouraged to develop a period-appropriate persona: a name, a personal history and, of course, garb. New members get a month to begin working on their outfits but are eventually expected to put together a complete ensemble.

Kym Airrington, the shire’s seamstress, helps the other members develop their garb.

“I have some books with pictures of historical clothes, so we’ll go through those, and they’ll decide what they want,” she explains. “And then I make it.” Airrington herself wears a gauzy, flowing white dress topped with a brown laced bodice, matching suede armbands and an assortment of chokers with rune and symbol pendants.

Chain mail is easily the most expensive item in a medieval warrior’s wardrobe. Each piece is handmade by one of the group; to demonstrate, Rennie Jonson fashions me a chain-mail bracelet. A large coil of metal wire is snipped into short pieces and bent into rings with a pair of pliers. Then, the rings are looped together in one of several distinct patterns, and the pieces are attached to form the finished armor. A chain-mail shirt weighs between 35 and 40 pounds and takes more than 200 hours to make.

“But,” says Adam Roby, sheriff of the shire, slapping his mailed chest proudly, “this thing could stop a .38!” He is sweating lightly from the strain of fighting in heavy armor.

“I don’t know about that,” says Chancellor Edward Williams, looking dubious. “You couldn’t get me to try it.”

Plus, of course, bullets aren’t historically accurate.

Adam Roby reenacts what it would be like to fight in medieval times wearing a kilt and handmade chain mail.

Photo By David Robert

Weapons of choice

From short swords to battle axes, Amtgard weapons must conform to exacting safety specifications to be approved for play. Beginning with a hollow core of fiberglass, PVC or bamboo, the weapons are built of layers of foam padding and duct tape. Arrow tips and sword points must be wider than an eye socket to avoid injury.

Still, even the softest of foam weapons smarts when you get hit, as I can attest. Nobody wants to hurt anyone, but in the confusion of battle, head shots (illegal in play) are common. So far, I’ve taken several blows to the head and have been run through the chest by at least three swords. But each time, the conquering hero stops to ask if I’m OK with a look of genuine concern. The only real injury is to my pride.

If I were wearing armor, I’d be a whole lot harder to kill. This is the real reason for wearing chain mail on the battlefield; what would otherwise be lethal attacks are absorbed by the armor, giving you the equivalent of several extra lives. As an unarmored peasant with a stolen sword, I’m living on borrowed time.

So, to prolong my brief life as a fighter, I’m sampling a whole slew of weapons. The staff looks impressive but is unwieldy and difficult to maneuver. A pair of short swords is versatile and easiest to use, but their smaller size means I have to get in closer to score a hit—difficult when your enemy is holding, say, a spiked mace (picture a pineapple-sized foam ball mounted on a spear). I’ve even tried a bow and arrow—the arrows are real but covered in giant foam marshmallows to blunt the tips. Finally, I settle on the long sword. Its greater range gives me a better chance of actually connecting with enemy flesh. Or so the theory goes.

“I feel like part of a barbarian horde!” bellows a warrior standing next to me between battles. This is easy for him to say, since he’s sporting some vicious-looking black chain mail.

“I feel like a punching bag,” I respond, absently rubbing a sore hip.

“Didn’t you know? You are one!” he chuckles.

Not just for grownups

It’s not all fighting, of course. Officially, Amtgard is a nonprofit organization dedicated to historical study and recreation, and members are encouraged to participate in educational and cultural events. Desert Moon is currently working to receive grant funding as a nonprofit organization and plans to begin staging demonstrations at schools and other community activities. They’ll also be at the Genoa Renaissance Faire July 24-25.

As we duel on the grass, passersby frequently stop and stare. The Amtgarders cheerfully trot over with flyers, explaining who they are and what they do. At one point, a station wagon full of excited kids pauses to observe. Sheriff Roby talks to them for a few minutes, and they actually park the car and come over to play.

“We were trying to see Harry Potter,” explains Mary Maul, the driver, “but the shows were all sold out.”

Instead, Iain, 13, Sarah, 11, and Zia, 10, each get their own diminutive swords and shields, a chance to try on some chain mail and a quick lesson from Williams. Their imaginations soon take over, and they race around the park, dodging and feinting through trees. In the final, free-for-all battle, Maul takes up a sword too, dueling gamely with Iain.

“This is good exercise,” she says of Amtgard. “It lets the kids get outside to run and act out their fantasies. … They can live movies and books, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.”

The Reno chapter includes several children, and all ages are welcome to join.

Even if you’re not a mighty warrior, Amtgard offers colorful, escapist fun with a medieval flavor.

“This is who I am when I’m not being normal," explains Jonson, smiling. "Who wants to be normal all the time?"