The Dragon Army hesitated briefly after the death of their commander, but an anonymous cry to attack galvanized them into action. I expected a bloodthirsty charge, but they advanced cautiously. The heavily-armored front-line warriors, faces painted like skulls, pounded their swords rhythmically against their shields as they closed on our perimeter.

Our reinforcements wouldn't arrive in time.

Rose scuttled into the fort through a tiny entrance. "Here we go," she said, flashing me a grin and nocking an arrow.

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I ducked as an unseen archer fired a shot in my direction. This was as real as I ever wanted it to get.

***

It was early in the summer of 1985. I was 16 years old, and had just discovered Dagorhir. The official handbook described Dagorhir as "Outdoor Improvisational Dark Age Battle Games." This apparently meant costumed participants roleplaying fantasy characters, running around in state parks, hitting each other with foam-padded sticks that vaguely resembled medieval weaponry.

It sounded wonderful.

I'd convinced my parents to let me travel to an official event in northern Maryland, promising them that there would be adult supervision. Neither they nor I knew that most of said adults were barely over legal drinking age themselves.

"At least he'll be outdoors and getting exercise," they reassured each other.

We made our pilgrimage to the battle in an old yellow Datsun with a canvas bag full of weapons strapped to the roof rack. Four medieval warriors in full costume and dark sunglasses driving up the interstate towards the Pennsylvania border drew stares from passing cars, but my companions never noticed. They'd been doing this every other weekend for three years, and it was all just part of the game.

***

Even medieval fantasy has its bureaucracy. Upon arrival, I had to register, pay my fee, turn in my liability waiver, attend a new player orientation and a costume check and have my weapons inspected for safety.

At the new player orientation, a knight named Hadrian explained the rules, demonstrating by hitting his assistant with foam-padded weapons.

"A torso hit kills you," Hadrian explained with a swing at his yelping assistant. "Head shots are illegal for melee weapons, but okay for arrows and thrown javelins. If you are hit in the arm, you lose your arm and must put that arm behind your back. If you lose a leg, go down on that knee. A hit to the limb with a slashing weapon severs the limb. Two severed limbs, and you die of blood loss. But you can lose all four limbs to other weapons without dying."

Grabbing a javelin, Hadrian stabbed his assistant in all four limbs, who obediently dropped to both knees, hands behind his back. Aping Monty Python, he cried, "Come back here, I'll bite your legs off!"

***

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