In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
Soc Mart, 1989, start of my third year at uni. Myself and a mate were having a wander… and we saw three long-haired characters all dressed up in armor and cloaks, and a table full of weapons. “We’re VaDaBaS,” they said, “the Viking and Dark Age Banqueting Society.” And the rest is history.
We’d found ourselves an outlet, a tribe, and a gang of lifelong friends. “Vike” meetings were held on Tuesday evenings, battle practices on Sundays, and we spent every summer weekend running around English Heritage sites with an ever-changing assortment of kit and steel cutlery. There were banquets, with much mead and foolishness, and there were battles, with more than a share of mud, steel, and swearing. The fighting was fierce and the bruises were commonplace—and nobody whinged when they got them (usually, they were offered up as badges round the night’s campfire). We made friends all across the UK, people with like-minded interests and senses of humor, people we could fight with, drink with and sing with, and look forward to seeing again for the next meeting.
It was an idyll, a fantasy bought to life, and it’s something I still miss.
In the very early days, I had trouble leaning to fight. I would miss parries constantly, end up with both thighs bruised to the hip and get overwhelmingly frustrated with the whole thing. We wore basic safety equipment—Viking/Saxon helmets and gauntlets—but battle practices weren’t “graded,” there were no half-measures, no “going softly” and no “middle ground.” If you stood up to fight, you were expected to hold your own, and to accept the fact that bruises were going to happen—and gender was of absolutely no relevance. It took gritted teeth sometimes, but I stuck with it, trying different weapons combinations—quarterstaff, sword and shield, spear—until I found my footing and my confidence. Lots of shouting helped. No, really.
During practices, we trained as individuals, one-on-one, learning how various weapon selections combined to take down an opponent. An axe is heavy and vicious, and great for hooking shields, but it’s unwieldy and you need a lot of forearm strength. A spear is great—if you’re alone, it’s best used as a quarterstaff with a pointy end—though they work best used in lines so that one of you can jab a shield aside as your mate pokes the enemy in the ribs. (Plus—always carry a knife, just in case.) Two weapons and no shield gives you a lot of attack speed, but your defense is lacking, so you need to be quick on your feet. And there’s always the Daneaxe, the two-handed monstrosity that looks like the cover of every heroic fantasy novel you ever saw—incredibly showy when swung around, but a beast (and a devastating one) to use really well. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, swords and shields were the most commonplace.
Sometimes, we trained with neighbourhood groups. This meant that, as well as one-on-one, we trained in shieldwalls, running through basic drills to face oncoming shields, spears, or arrows. The drills were perfect illustrations of battlefield tactics: how units could respond to commands quickly to break an enemy advance or take an opportunity to drive through an oncoming force. These were exhausting but a lot of fun—when I wrote the final battle scenes in Ecko Endgame, I could see, hear and feel all of those old training sessions, the facing an opponent across a shieldrim and the pushing and cursing and fighting for traction that goes with trying to force your enemy back.
And it all adds up—enough time and practice, and I could hold my own against individuals and oncoming lines. And enjoy and look forward to it. As well as melee weapons, I learned to use a bow, and to snipe at single targets behind the opposing shieldwall, leaving them startled as the rubber blunt thumped into their chest. More often then not, they never saw it coming, and would roll their eyes in annoyance and fall over “dead,” sometimes even to a cheer.
As well as the fighting, we had a strong Living History element—craftsmen and women who took a different pleasure in our shared hobby, and would spend summer weekends sitting in the sun talking to the public about wood lathes, runic alphabets, and the forging of basic steel. And we worked together as a family, a little unit in our own right. We showed not only the drama, but the village life and the backdrop that made it all seem that much more real.
We were very fortunate to be able to fight—and frequently camp—in the centre of sites protected by English Heritage. From Lindisfarne to Old Sarum to Whitby to Tintagel, we would celebrate our evenings with fires flickering from ancient walls, and songs (frequently rude ones) raised to the night above. It was an amazing thing to wake up to, as well—hungover or not, the vast age that stood round you was a thing to inspire awe. And probably another coffee.
On occasion, our shows strayed away from the Dark Ages, and into more mid-Medieval periods. I’ve fought in chainmail (about a stone and a half, heavy but not impossible), and in hand-made full plate (about three stone, impossible to either sit down or pee in). And whatever the artists tell you about stylised shoulders and bared cleavage, it’s a very foolish way to try and protect your vitals—never mind being singly impractical to wear.
And, just for the record, if you are in proper full armour and a helm, no one can actually tell what gender you are. And that’s as it should be.
I gave up the Vike almost fifteen years ago, and miss it still. Every so often, old friends post pictures on Facebook, and we’re all a little greyer and wider through the middle, but their celebration and enjoyment doesn’t seem to have changed.
I rather envy them.
Danie Ware is the publicist and event organizer for cult entertainment retailer Forbidden Planet. She has worked closely with a wide range of genre authors and has been immersed in the science fiction and fantasy community for the past decade. An early adopter of blogging and social media, and a familiar face at conventions, she appears on panels as an expert on genre marketing and retailing. Ecko Endgame is her third novel.