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Drawn by shouts and the dull rumble of physical conflict, three bikers abandon their Harleys at a day camp near the main road and make their way, on foot, through the shimmering, gem-green trees of Redwood Regional Park. They emerge from the wood, finding themselves on the edge of a large field of new spring grass dominated by a tremendous circle of tents. In the open arena created by the "tents" -- which are, on closer inspection, opulent canvas pavilions and well-provisioned sun shades -- an enormous, thunderous skirmish is under way. The bikers glance at each other and shrug, lighting cigarettes before casually stepping into the circle for a better view.
Mark Twain would have been delighted.
The motorcycle riders, with their leather vests, sunglasses, and Harley insignias, stare in momentary disbelief as men and women in shining armor and helmets rain blows upon one another with competition swords and battle axes; on the perimeter, small boys in tunics scurry underfoot, practicing swordplay while their fathers drink mead out of wooden goblets and their mothers tend iron pots hanging over fire pits; ladies and gentlemen in stately dress -- feathered hats and snoods, surcoats, and embroidered capes -- promenade around the playing field, chatting with guests from visiting principalities; three young women begin a medieval song near a meeting of the Brewers Guild; and a bard offers courtly news.
Despite what you may think, the bikers have not inadvertently stumbled into the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. This is not a spectator event where paying customers might be entertained for an hour or two; for many of those assembled, this is a way of life (at least two or three days of the week) and this gathering, the Mists Spring Coronet, is an affair of great import: It will decide, by right of arms and honorable combat, who shall be heir to the crowns of their Highnesses Prince Hans and Princess Caera of the Principality of the Mists.
The Principality of the Mists includes numerous baronies, cantons, shires, and provinces within the greater Bay Area, and is one of four realms within the Kingdom of the West, which stretches across Nevada, Northern California, Alaska, Australia, Japan, Korea, and the rest of the Pacific Rim. There are no less than 16 kingdoms, stretching as far as the Yukon and New Zealand, and taken as a whole, they comprise the driving force behind a 34-year-old tradition known as the Society for Creative Anachronism.
The SCA began in Berkeley when a group of science fiction and fantasy fans got together to throw a going-away theme party for a friend who was joining the Peace Corps. The idea caught on, and eventually the Berkeley group incorporated into a nonprofit educational society. At last count, there were over 24,000 paying members, with an estimated number three times as great for nonpaying active participants. All are devoted subjects of a fictional feudal society for which they re-create the arts, crafts, sciences, literature, clothes, ethics, and, maybe most notably, the armed fighting style of the European Middle Ages. They hold festivals, tournaments, feasts, and dances; they take SCA names and duties; they teach classes on cooking, metalwork, stained glass, weaving, and martial arts; they fight for the honor of their lady, or gentleman, loves; and they wage wars that can last as many as 10 days. They are all around us.
Twenty-eight armored combatants, among them six women, practice in warm-up bouts on the eric, or tournament field, under a blazing sun, while other members of the court look on from the comfort of sun shades.
"It's very important that they warm up," says silver-haired Eilis O'Boirne, vice president of SCA Inc., who under her "mundane" name, Lee Forgue, works for the University of California. "The armor is very, very heavy, and it is impossible to just put it on and start fighting. They have to be careful, of course, not to overextend themselves during practice." A 27-year veteran of the SCA, O'Boirne brought both her children into the medieval fold early on, and one of them, her adult daughter, is here today, parading around the camp on a beautiful horse, the train of her gown trailing off the animal, the sun catching her hair as she chats with those on foot. It's a pocketbook cliché that looks pretty enjoyable in life.
"This fulfills the same social niche a church might in a small town," says O'Boirne outside a pavilion strewn with Persian carpets and animal skins. "Everyone knows everyone else. They help each other out. Relationships develop. Sometimes, there are problems and conflicts which have to be addressed and resolved. Actually, it's less like the church and more like the small town itself, just one that moves around every weekend."
The Royal Herald steps onto the eric and announces the beginning of the Invocation Ceremony, during which would-be successors to the throne present their consorts -- in whose honor they fight -- and challenge their opponents. (Another code of chivalry requires less seasoned fighters to make the challenges.) The court assembles on either side of the Royal Pavilion, designated by laurel leaves on the coat of arms, and the royal procession begins: the visiting Princess of Cynagua (the Northern Central Valley and Sierras); the King and Queen of the West Kingdom, who wear crowns of real silver donated by SCA members and crafted by artisans; Hans and Caera, Prince and Princess of the Mists, and all their attending lords and ladies. The assembled court bows and announcements are made about the upcoming Collegium (which offers 30 classes in all arts medieval), the day's contests in bardic poetry about Mists royals, past and present, the brewing of aphrodisiacs and cordials with medicinal properties, and so on. The prince, a swarthy man with a full voice, calls forth Kay the Innocent to bestow upon her the honor of the Order of Pelicans for selfless service to the realm; Kay, flushed with heat and emotion, bows low before her lord, and the crowd cheers loudly. Fabian, king of the West Kingdom, offers to cross swords with any challenger, which brings more cheers, and shouts of "Long live the king!" There is a call for a warm-up melee, while the princess of the Mists hurries to a nearby Porta Potti, attended by several ladies in waiting.
The tournament itself is fast and furious: one-on-one combat, with double elimination. There are two playing fields within the eric, marked by the heraldic colors azure and vert, and no less than three marshals to oversee each field. The marshals are surprisingly redundant for, although the swords are not real, the chivalric codes of honesty and sportsmanship are genuine. Fighters inflicted with blows sacrifice the use of smitten limbs; fighters thinking their blows not sufficient to warrant the sacrifice disclaim the stroke before resuming battle; and a blow to the head or body, even with a rattan sword, is ample to send the losing side of the encounter sprawling across the field in spastic death throes. Most of the battles between seasoned fighters (knights are designated by white belts) and new challengers are quick to end, but even quick fights, under the weight of armor and the heat of an unseasonably hot sun, are enough to cause great exhaustion.
After winning her first fight and losing her second, Duchess Elina of Beckenham sits under a sun shade attended by Duke Stephen of Beckenham, her beloved consort and real-life husband. The titles of duke and duchess are afforded those personages who have held the title of king or queen twice, and, with her lionlike eyes, battered armor, and crimson fighting surcoat detailed with a gold griffin, the duchess is regal in every aspect. In her mundane persona, 33-year-old Tobi Beck is a former captain of the Army military police and author of The Armored Rose, an in-depth study of how and why men and women approach combat differently. In her everyday life, Beck has been sent to Cuba, Panama, Honduras, and Somalia in times of need; as a member of the SCA, she has fought thousands of battles and ruled in two kingdoms. Both lives are points of pride.
"You learn about history here by trying it on," says Duchess Elina. "The best way to learn is always by doing." And clearly, the battles don't hurt.
By late afternoon, only Viscount Thurfinn Magnissin and Sir Brion of Bellatrix remain. Margrethe Astrid Ravn, otherwise known as Meg Heydt, the "autocrat" who organized today's event, is not surprised.
"Brion is the princess' champion, and Thurfinn was prince of Cynagua," says Ravn. "They are both strong fighters."
During the final match, the whole of the court seems to hold its breath. Thurfinn, in red, and Brion, in blue, square off. The attack is fierce, the blows deafening; sod flies under the noblemen's boots, and their armor shudders with strain. Brion fights with two swords and no shield, in Florentine style, and brings Thurfinn to his knees -- but Thurfinn is triumphant. The fallen knight is given wine and the royals attend the field, welcoming their new heir and bestowing on him a crown of laurel, with a crown of roses for his absent consort, who is attending a wedding elsewhere.
Behind his pavilion, seated on a leather chair brought by his squire Shastan, Thurfinn looks every bit the victorious hero of myth, his armor gleaming, his face sanguine, his long hair matted with sweat, and his mouth set with intrepidity as he speaks of his lady love, Duchess Cyneswith aet Caldhaefen.
"I am very excited to make my lady princess," says Thurfinn. "I've always wanted to do something like this for her. The last time I was prince, I shared my reign with a very good friend. It was a wonderful reign, but something was missing, that romantic quality I wanted. I swore I'd never fight again for someone unless I was in love with them. Now I am, and this will be perfect."
Thurfinn, 29-year-old Kelly Long, met his lady while she was queen and he captain of her guard. They fell in love, and he has won her a crown. At home in Santa Clara, Long works in a cafe. Here, he is Thurfinn, Lord of the Mists, a 21st-century Lancelot, and people bow.
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