Saturday, November 1

Knightly Families

The following is a piece I wrote for my Literary Journalism class. I eventually plan on looking around to see if anyone wants to publish it, but until that time, I hope you enjoy "Knightly Families."

Every Saturday the Bowl of Manito Park becomes a battlefield. Students and professionals, men and women, members all of the Grand Duchy of StormHaven, come together for an afternoon of Amtgard.

Bearing weapons, wearing garb they crafted themselves, the warriors challenge one another during sparring matches. A single hit to the torso, and they are dead. One strike to a limb renders it unusable. Those hit in the leg drop to the ground. A struck arm is held behind the back. Second hit to a limb and they are dead until the next round. Attacks to the head count for nothing because they are too dangerous.

At the end of one match, a boy breaks away and walks to a man and a woman watching from lawn chairs in the shade. Except for a lion in profile on the center of the man's tunic, his and the boy's are the same: four alternating, square patches of purple and yellow meeting at the center.

“Do you have any wizard sheets?” the boy asks. “My last one got soaked.”

The man rummages through a plastic file carrier and pulls a paper from the file marked 'WIZARD.' The boy sits down and begins to fill out lines and write in numbers. After a while he pauses.

“What else should I take?” he asks. “I've maxed Iceball.”

“Just take Magical Bolt,” the woman says as she leans closer.

“Which weapons are you using?” the man asks, taking a look at what the boy already wrote down. The boy's parents continue to ask him questions and offer suggestions as his character begins to take shape.

To the few who pass by the Bowl on their way back from the gardens for which the park is best known, Amtgard is about the fighting, swinging and dodging homemade swords, and pointing and chanting “Charm, charm, charm” to force a player off the field. What the players stay for, however, is a community, one which can be as tightly bound as that of blood. The heart of Amtgard is found on the periphery of the battlefield where the family comes together.

Amtgard began in Texas in 1983 as a recreational and educational opportunity to engage the premodern world. Players are encouraged to perform period research as they build their era-appropriate garb and weapons. The rules of combat allow players to adopt personas with special abilities like Archers and Paladins and magic users like Druids and Bards.

Gonzaga students started StormHaven, the Spokane chapter of Amtgard, in 1995, and many members came to it through an interest in medieval times and fighting styles. Jeff McKinsey is a former member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He was interested in the fighting system employed by Amtgard, more realistic than the linearity of sport fencing. What he become a part of, however, was not a mere combat group but a community, a family. When his yard needed landscaping several years ago, McKinsey put on a barbecue. Over 40 fellow players descended upon his home, and within a weekend, the landscaping was begun and finished.

The sparring is over now, and a game is about to begin. Leah and Dan French watch their son grab a sword, the shaft of a golf club covered in foam and cloth, and join in. Mrs. French's wrist shattered in an accident last New Year's Eve, and the 17 metal plates in her wrist prevent her from fighting. Though she and her husband wait now on the sidelines, they are pillars of the community. They have both served multiple terms as Grand Duke and Prime Minister of StormHaven, and outside of the Saturday battles, they spend countless hours arranging meetings and coordinating events ranging from feasts to the multi-day Thousand Stars.

For their great service to the community, both were permitted to join the Order of Flame Knights and granted the ability to confer the titles. Perhaps more importantly though, the title of knight confers upon them the responsibility of leading a knightly family one whose duties and relationships extend well beyond Amtgard. Though they may have reached the highest title within Amtgard, it is their duty to mentor the newest members, to teach them to better their standing in Amtgard and the greater world. Once a month, Mr. and Mrs. French and all their pages, men-at-arms and squires, the members of their knightly family, come together for breakfast and discuss their lives.

If someone is having a problem, they help one another to solve it. Logan Wherli, now on the field, lives with the Frenches during the week to attend school, and Mr. French recalls another player who needed help. After his mother died, he dropped out of high school, began to get into gangs. Mr. French wanted to see something positive come from the boy's life. Through Mr. French's influence, the boy re-enrolled in school and graduated and now has a wife and child.

A young blonde woman in a maroon tunic, Sami Kampster, stands in the field and explains the rules of the game.

There will be two teams, she says, an offense and a defense. The objective of the offense is to flip over five shields scattered across the field in under 15 minutes. Before a shield can be flipped, a team member must keep both hands on it and count 15 seconds aloud without being struck. During this time, they depend completely upon their teammates to defend them.

As a game, players are allowed to play with special abilities and weapons besides short swords. McKinsley, takes a red sash to identify himself as a Healer, able to cast curative spells. Adam Smith, clothed entirely in black and wielding two short swords, is an Assassin and can set traps.

After the captains choose their teams, they form at opposite ends of the field. At Kampster's sign, the game begins. They rush forward. The shield closest to the offense's end is easily taken. They have already counted five seconds before the first defenders arrive, and the offense easily holds them back. Taking the other shields will be more difficult. The offense runs to the next. A team member drops his sword, begins to count. His teammates form a perimeter. It is not enough. Javelins are thrown. Spells are cast from afar. The line is breaking. A defender is killed when he comes to close to a player wounded only in the leg. It is not enough. The counter is struck before he reaches 15 and must walk back to the offensive end before he can return to combat. The offense surges en masse this time. They target the ranged attackers and hold the line. The offense wins another shield.

Kampster stands apart from the action watching for rule violations. She is a reeve, a referee. Mrs. French named Kampster woman-at-arms over three years ago, but she is a member of new knightly family now.

Kampster had a greater interest in fighting than Mrs. French could fill, so the Flame Knight paired her with Eric Devine. For this game he is playing his favorite class, Monk, unable to wear armor or use a shield but able to deflect projectiles with his hands. He earned his knighthood with the Order of the Sword last year by winning 21 consecutive one-on-one tournament matches.

Taking on a squire is a serious commitment for Devine. The knightly family should be as close as blood, and before agreeing to mentor Kampster, he wrote a family creed, describing how to represent it and what appropriate conduct is. Kampster is the first and only member of his knightly family. Outside of the Saturday battles, Devine and Kampster spend time together talking and spar at least once a week at Fighter's Practice. After each round, they discuss what they did wrong, how they could improve their footwork and when to raise or lower their shoulder.

The shield-flipping game is over, and a game of Amtgard-style Capture the Flag begins. Teammates walk in pairs, one with a ranged weapon and another with a sword, for protection from attacks both near and far. This game is slower. The field is larger, offering few melee opportunities, and ranged attacks are difficult against wary opponents. Quickly and quietly they move from cover to cover, hoping to take their opponents unaware.

Sometimes the close relationships make it hard for new players to get involved.

Jeff Hamilton, walking quietly through the trees, alert and armed with a spear longer than him, moved to Spokane a few years ago. He was a member of the Kingdom of the Inland Ocean in Seattle and wanted to get involved with the Spokane chapter but felt uncomfortable, apart at meetings. It took him a long time before he felt as though he were a member of the “in-group.”

Making new members feel welcome, then, has become a priority. Four of the youngest now on the field are playing Amtgard for only the second time. Their tunics and short swords were loaned to them by veteran members, so they can get in the mood, fit in.

The last round of Capture the Flag winds down around 4 o'clock. The group began at noon, and people are beginning to leave in ones and twos. Those who haven't left yet are sitting together, talking. Mr. French and Devine discuss work, and McKinsey suggests they all get together for paintball later in the week. It is another week before many of them will don garb and take up their short swords again, but the community, the family, does not stop.

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