November 21, 2009 — A gold-rimmed sea serpent undulates around a trident along the end of the narrow blue flag as it ripples in the morning breeze that blows across the gopher-pocked green of Lakeside’s El Monte Park, which spreads out below the brown face of El Cajon Mountain. And if that sentence sounds high-flown, well, there’s a reason why. The flag is only one of maybe a hundred ringing the field that will see today’s combat — armored, unarmored, and rapier — and the serpent is only one of four symbols on that flag, but it is the symbol of the Barony of Calafia. The barony covers San Diego and Imperial Counties, and today is its anniversary tournament. It’s an event grand enough to command the presence of King Patrick O’Malley and Queen Kara the Twin of Kelton, the reigning monarchs of the Kingdom of Caid, the sixth kingdom in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a region that encompasses southern California, southern Nevada, and Hawaii. (Yes, it helps that their majesties are locals, but still.)
King Patrick won the crown in August of ’09 at the Caid Crown Tourney in Fresno (you can see the deciding blow, uploaded via iPhone, on YouTube), after a three-way final with Sir Valrik and Sir Ragnar. Watch along with me, won’t you?
He faces Ragnar first: two men of substance in full armor, each wearing the white belt that signifies knighthood, each carrying a painted aluminum shield and a rattan sword carefully wrapped in duct tape.
Patrick, a 30-year veteran of Society combat, is the less adorned of the two. As befits his persona — an Irish fighter of the early 11th Century — he wears no tunic, and he wouldn’t be wearing articulated steel coverings on his knees and elbows if Society safety regulations didn’t require joint protection. The engraved leather greaves, though — those he’d be wearing, even if the boots beneath them are modern.
(Another nod to modernity: his chain-mail shirt is made from titanium instead of steel, so that it weighs 9 pounds instead of 35. It cost him around $2000, but after three knee surgeries, the switch from steel was worth it. Not that it does him a great deal of good either way in combat: “Chain is mostly jewelry,” he grants. “It’s good for stopping a real sword, but against a club” — and an inch-thick rattan stick with a basket-handle absolutely counts as a club — “not so much.”)
The two knights strike a few blows from a safe distance — there are great smacking sounds as sword rattles shield — but mostly, they dance, approaching, retreating, circling, weaving. “So much of what you’re doing is mental,” he says. “He’ll shift position, and I know what blows he can throw from that position, so I’ll shift to parry. There’s a whole fight that goes on before any actual blows are thrown — it’s more intricate than you can tell from the outside.” There is reason to hesitate before committing to an attack: one shot to a limb, and that limb is gone (if it’s a leg, you drop to the ground and fight from your knees). One shot to the head or torso, and you’re done.
Eventually, each man having taken measure of the other, the two come to grips, and 90 seconds after the battle begins, it’s over. Amid a flurry of swords, Patrick delivers a clean blow to Ragnar’s head, and he crumples to the ground. “It can go very quickly,” says Patrick, “and honestly, with the amount of energy you’re expending during an intense fight, you’re not going to go much more than a minute or so. It’s like boxing — you can’t just stand up and be relaxed. Your whole body is tensed” — and you’re wearing armor, and you have to keep your sword and shield up…. “Most of the people in Crown Tournament do a lot of work to stay in shape. You’re going to fight a minimum of 11 fights to win.” By the final, “I was pretty determined to be done in two fights.”
And he was done in two. Returning to the tourney: the crowd — also Society members, also dressed in period attire, because this is first and foremost a club, a community, as opposed to a company, of players — settles in for round two. The Marshal, dressed in a forest-green robe and a white sash, opens the proceedings.
“Gentlemen, all salutes having been delivered: Sir Valrik, stand you prepared?”
“Ready!” replies Valrik, holding his sword high.
“Sir Patrick, stand you prepared?”
“Ready,” says Patrick. He does not raise his sword.
“Lay on!” cries the Marshall, as he steps back to keep watch over the combat. But he’s not exactly the ref — nobody’s waiting on his call to celebrate the combat equivalent of a touchdown. It’s up to the recipient of a given blow to say whether it landed, and whether it landed with enough force to be called a hit. (How much force that is, exactly, varies from region to region. The baronies around Toronto and Florida have reputations for light hits; New York and Cleveland tend to go heavier. It makes for some spirited discussions when various kingdoms come together in battle, say at Pennsic, the massive Society gathering held each summer in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.)
The fight takes all of 20 seconds. The two fly together and trade blows, and then O’Malley presses in and strikes from up high, and Valrik sinks before the onslaught.
“Victor of the day is Patrick O’Malley!” cries a voice. Everyone cheers. Valrik stands, and the two men embrace.
“He had thrown a shot to my leg that I caught low with my shield,” recalls Patrick. “His shield was lowered, so I picked up the edge of it and drove it out of the way and followed through to the side of his head. I have a picture of it on my desk. It’s much faster on the video than it was in my mind.”