by Abby E
So, the re-enactment group that I joined is preparing for its first show of the year, and even though I won’t be fighting in this one, I crossed the city for a practice session that was delightfully indoors. Usually we practice outside in a public park, which can result in the freezing off of backsides as well as some rather curious social interactions. For example, a couple of guys in full Viking costume tried to photobomb a wedding party last fall, but the bride and groom ran away. Seriously? Who wouldn’t want to have their wedding crashed by Vikings? I have no idea what was wrong with those people. Anyway, for this week’s practice, I brought back the shield the group had recently loaned me so they could use it in the next practice, and of course, I have the bruises on my hands to show it. The weight of of the shield always ends up resting on the metacarpal bone closest to my thumb, and just hauling the thing around creates bruises from the pressure. You can imagine how much worse it gets when I’m using the thing to block a hit. Apparently, I really am a delicate feminine flower.
At this practice, I met M and B, who are from another group. B hung out with some other folks who were mostly observing, but M came out to fight, and he wields a Dane axe. The Dane axe, occasionally referred to as a two-handed axe, is perhaps the ultimate widowmaker of Viking weapons. It’s an axehead on a pole and in a real battle, you sure as hell would not want to receive a blow from one. Even though the axehead was on a haft one metre long or more, it was not clumsy or unwieldy, and it could be used in hand-to-hand combat or from behind the protection of a shield wall. The long haft meant that your opponent’s axe could reach far enough back to rip your shield out of your hand or come down on your head with tremendous force. A helmet may not have been sufficient to save you from serious injury or death, and some Viking fighters may not have even worn helmets, which would have been expensive. (Swords were also pricey and generally the weapon of choice for wealthier men. A man of modest means might simply use his axe or knife, which werecommon household tools but could double as sharp stabby weapons.)
This was my first experience fighting an opponent wielding a Dane axe, although M used it more like a spear most of the time. This is just as well, since I probably don’t have enough experience to defend myself safely, even though M is a well-trained and highly experienced fighter. I think he swung at my shield a few times and even stabbed at it with the top of the haft, but mostly I practiced fighting against him up close. M held the axe defensively so that the haft was almost vertical and the axehead was pointed to the ground. All he had to do was swing the haft from side to side to block me, which is a great defensive move and all the more so given that M was probably a little over six feet tall and had really long arms. He did teach me how to use my shield to shove the haft aside and block his defense so I could get a body strike in, but that was a lot harder than it looked.
The last thing we did that day was train with knives, or seaxes. Viking men often carried seaxes around in sheaths attached to their belts so that they hung with the blade parallel to the ground. I suspect this just made it easier to grab if you needed it to cut something – or someone – in a hurry. Here’s where things got a little dirty. We didn’t use any shields for this exercise, just our seaxes and our wits. With no shields, we were not protected, but we were not burdened by any extra weight, either. Being able to duck and dodge was crucial, but you had to move fast and get in close and while you didn’twant to accidentally grab the seax, you could grab or block your opponent’s arm. Most of my seax fights ended with me bearhugging my opponent, at which point I figured I might as well cut out his kidneys since he was just going to kill me anyway. We also played stealthy assassin, which would be fun for a show. Basically, you’ve got your standard bored sentry hanging around and looking in entirely the wrong direction (of course) while a scout or thief sneaks up behind them and slashes their throat. To do this, you quickly but gently wrap a gloved hand around the victim’s neck and then draw the seax over your own hand so you can’t accidentally hurt the other person with the blade. I got to slash a throat or two, but no one slashed mine. Not sure why –maybe it was goddamned chivalry. Perhaps I should have jumped around, waving and shouting “Me! Me! Kill me!” Oh well. Next time.
At one point, I ended up being in – and then somehow immediately out of – a three-way seax fight, and for reasons I can’t explain I was the last person standing. (I’m not really sure what happened there – did I get killed and not realize it? Tsk tsk. Bad form.) Anyway, while I stood to the side, one guy managed to kill the other, but then the survivor ended up on his knees. He didn’t seem to notice that I was still there, so I nonchalantly walked up behind him and cut his throat. So much for being delicate.
PS. Photos courtesy of my Jarl. This is very generous of him, given that I snuck up and murdered him from behind like a Hel-bound scoundrel.
PPS. That’s not a typo. Hel is the daughter of Loki and the keeper of the not-so-fortunate dead. She receives those who die of illness, accidents, old age, or who are just such dishonourable sacks of shit that Odin doesn’t want them.
Abby E. is a Toronto-based freelance editor who loves science, philosophy, and speculative fiction. She is not a crazy cat lady, just a crazy lady who has cats.