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.
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!”
My sword and javelin had just passed safety check. As I left the inspection line, a voice asked, “So you fight with the javelin?”
I turned. The girl addressing me was a vision from a B-grade fantasy movie. She was about my age, slender, with her hair bound up in braids. Her medieval battle-dress was both revealing and functional, with a slit up the side to allow freedom of movement. I was immediately in love – at least for the next four hours.
I answered truthfully. “Not well. I’ve only been doing this for a week.”
“I’m not great, either. Care to practice?”
We faced each other in the parking lot. She moved her javelin tip in a rapid figure eight. Her attack came suddenly, the foam javelin head shooting forward like a rattlesnake strike. I parried frantically, stepping back. I had a moment to savor my successful defense when her follow-up attack smacked me in the chest, knocking me off-balance.
“Keep your javelin moving so your opponent doesn’t know which way the next strike will come,” she explained, then offered brightly, “Best two out of three?”
After an hour of waiting for the enemy to attack us at our hastily constructed fortress of fallen trees and branches, we were growing impatient. Most of our army, the Griffins, had gone off on the offense to capture the flag of the enemy Dragons, leaving us to hold the fort – literally.
Fey, my instructor from the parking lot, was much less talkative once she’d gotten into character. The heralds – the referees – had informed us they’d award nearly equal points for good roleplaying as for combat victories, so we were all playing our characters to the hilt, hamming it up when the heralds came by. Apparently, Fey’s character was the silent type.
Rose, an archer standing outside the fort’s walls, sighed, “We should have received some casualties by now.” She was referring to the rule where those who died in battle would be sent to a central location called Valhalla. They’d have to wait 10 to 20 minutes before rejoining their army, often returning to their home fort where they could easily find their allies.
“Is the enemy always this slow to attack?” I asked.
Rose peered over the wall at me. “This is your first battle, is it not?”
“A virgin?” an eavesdropping girl in elf ears asked. “Have we a virgin in our midst?”
“It is my first battle,” I responded carefully.
The elf-eared girl began to chant playfully, “A virgin! We’ve got ourselves a virgin!”
Rose chuckled. “Not to worry. You will have plenty of experience soon.”
The sound of fighting erupted from the ravine below us. Roars of combatants mingled with the thumps of padded weapons. I strained to see, but the ridge and trees blocked my view. Eventually, the sounds died out, and our tension slowly filled the silence.
Minutes later, friendly troops emerged from the woods. Rose called, “Griffins! Are you the victors?”
Our commander, Kaltor, shook his head. “Survivors. Most of our people are in Valhalla, and the Dragons have all of their shieldmen back.”
Rose administered her healing prayer to the wounded. As one of our team’s designated healers, Rose could restore health to a player who had taken a non-fatal hit by touching them with a scroll and reciting a poem out loud. Skilled healers, like Rose, could rattle the poem off in under thirty seconds.
Our enemies arrived before she had finished. The army advanced cautiously, armor clanking as they marched down the forest path. Off to the side, heralds silently took position to observe and adjudicate the coming violence.
The enemy commander called out. “Kaltor, I challenge you to an honor duel. No other fighting shall commence until our duel is concluded. The victor will be granted safe return to his army.”
Kaltor accepted over some protests. I was bewildered by the ordeal and anxious to join the fight myself. Noting my confusion, a teammate explained, “He’s buying us time. We need our people back from Valhalla, especially our heavy armor and shields.”
Kaltor and the enemy commander moved off to a clearing. They circled ether while both armies awaited the outcome. Swords struck in a flurry of thumps as padded blade met shield. Suddenly, in simultaneous death-stokes, both commanders lay dead.
Dagorhir arrows had padded heads that looked like giant doorknobs. They lost velocity quickly in flight, but were still fast enough to catch the unwary. One narrowly missed my head as I ducked behind our fort’s ramparts.
Rose and another archer returned fire as the Dragons whittled away our perimeter defenses. As the defenders fell, Rose dropped her bow and cried, “Bring the wounded to me!” But our warriors died faster than she could heal them. I watched helplessly as the elf-eared girl engaged two armored warriors, only to collapse with a scream under their unrelenting attacks. They hammered her body with additional hits to make certain she was dead.
Once the perimeter defenders were dead or forced back, the Dragons literally attacked the fort, smashing and pulling at our walls. I had forced several attackers back with my javelin when a black sword blade swung over the wall and struck my arm. I howled in feigned pain, leapt backwards and put my arm behind my back.
“Warrior, you are injured! Come to me!” Rose called from the center of our fort. I knelt while she recited the healing poem.
Fey rushed to cover my position, now facing four opponents. As the attackers smashed at the wall, it collapsed inwards on top of her. She dodged, but her weapon was pinned under the branches. The emboldened Dragons attacked her as she attempted to pull it free.
The last seconds of Rose’s poem seemed an eternity as the enemy fighters backed Fey against an opposite wall. The moment Rose finished, I charged the four men with relentless fury. I hadn’t noticed that Fey was already dead.
I managed to injure one of them before a spear struck my leg. I fell to one knee, and my opponents pummeled me with their weapons. I made an appropriate death-cry, fell over, and tried to avoid getting stepped on.
The heralds cried, “Hold! Dead, you may rise and go to Valhalla.”
The fighting ceased. We stood up and put on our white headbands. One of the skull-faced Dragon warriors politely tugged Fey’s javelin free from the collapsed wall and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said cheerfully.
“No talking to the living!” a herald snapped with mock gruffness.
“Sorry I couldn’t save you,” I apologized as we trudged to Valhalla, the sounds of battle resuming behind us.
“It’s bad luck to try and save me,” Fey responded without elaboration. She had her own story, one in which I played only a bit part.
I broke character. “Some game, huh?”
She shrugged, “My last battle was better.”
Jay Barnson grew up to be a videogame developer, and to run the gaming blog Tales of the Rampant Coyote, where he often expounds upon the virtues of indie computer roleplaying games. Alas, he never saw Fey again …