by Abby E
Some people spend Easter eating ham and sweet potatoes with their families; others just hang out for the long weekend. This year, I spent Easter learning how to kill people safely.
My fellow reeanactors and I have been waiting for a few months for two trainers from Edmonton (N and P) to give individual and group assessments. As a new member, I had to do the basic combat safety assessment and display and formation assessments so that I can perform in public shows. In the days leading up to the weekend, I kept telling myself “You got this” and “Don’t fuck it up.”
While the more experienced members were taking their one-handed spear assessments, the fledgling Vikes discussed safety rules and equipment, allowable strike zones, and what you do when you accidentally land a shot outside a strike zone.
To start off the physical tests, we picked up our weapons and, one by one, dealt blows to our chain-mail-clad trainer to make sure we were hitting with the right amount of force. Next, we moved on to practicing “eights” – the eight places/directions to hit your opponent – and how to block each shot, first while standing still, then moving around each other to demonstrate striking and blocking as if we were doing a show.
That was relatively easy but the two-minute fights were hard. I’m a deskmonkey and I don’t do as much cardio as I should, so two minutes of fighting while holding a shield is fairly taxing. Of course, this is all for display. Real Vikings would have struck quick and hard to land a killing shot without expending unnecessary energy, but we’re doing this for edutainment purposes, so we want to give the crowds a thrill. I had an axe, which I really like because you can use it to hook your opponent’s shield or weapon, but you don’t have the same reach as with a sword. Additionally, your hand is closer to the fight and completely exposed, so I took a good shot to the ring finger on my right hand. After dinner that night, one of the trainers noticed my swollen, purple finger and said that was a common axe fighting injury, then everyone at the table proceeded to goggle at my war wound. I was very proud.
Of course, the real test was facing off against polearms, which is tough when you have a little one-handed axe. The shield is great protection, but it’s incredibly hard to get in to land a hit when you’re trying to dodge blows and not get pushed around. Your opponent’s options are limited if you get close, so they don’t want you to get close.
I’ve fought against each of the two-handed spear and the dane axe before, but those trainers were clearly wearing kid gloves. They were instructing – this was a test. These guys were WAY more aggressive and even though I never felt unsafe, it was incredibly challenging to block a fast, heavy blow and then recover enough to attempt a strike. Trust me, if you had to face down a dane axe in a real fight, you’d shit your pants. Hopefully, you’d also remember to block the big, scary axehead coming at your face.
I passed my basic combat assessment (yay!) and then it was time to do shield wall formations. I think I had only practiced the shield wall once or twice before and I had a lot of trouble then, partly because my Jarl was shouting in Norse so I kept doing the wrong thing and partly because when we did an about-face, we were raising our shields over our heads, turning, then bringing our shields back down and slamming them together to reform the wall. However, by the time we got around to doing the shield wall during a previous practice, my shoulder was so tired I couldn’t lift the shield. However, N and P taught us to just lower our shields to our sides, turn towards our weapon side, then turn and reform the wall, which is much easier.
Advancing as a unit took a little work, but we got that down pat. I was trying hard to focus on what I was doing and whether I was in step with my neighbours, but it was really amazing to get into formation, march forward as a unit while shouting and bashing our shields, and then stop and go silent all at once. It’s really eerie. I can imagine how an opposing force would see that.
Aside from the usual single- and double-line formations, we worked on the “boar snout,” which is a wedge formation intended to break through an opposing force’s shield wall. The lead fighter stands out front to form the point of the wedge while others stand behind and slightly to the sides with their shields overlapping, and behind them all are several lines of fighters who help drive the whole thing forward. Once the shield wall is breached, you can start nailing your opponents and their whole defense will just start falling apart.
We also worked on a formation intended to protect several lines from projectiles. We had already practiced blocking blunted, low-velocity arrows and thrown spears while standing in a single-line formation, but that leaves your legs vulnerable. This formation has the front line getting right down all fours with their shields on the ground in front of them while the lines behind kneel or crouch, lowering their shields, angling and overlapping them to block unfriendly fire. Naturally, the trainers looked for the holes between shields and poked at us with their spears. [Insert dirty jokes here.]
Anyway, after some sparring, we all moseyed along for dinner and drinks and relaxed for a bit. By the time I got home I was tired and happy and totally prepared to feel like a rusty tin man in the morning.
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.