Moments after a hot August practice session of the medieval battle re-enactment sport known as Dagorhir, Becker demonstrated her skill by drawing her bow and playfully bouncing an arrow off her husband, Brendan Becker.
He grinned. She smiled.
“Somebody taught me how to shoot a bow,” Jessica said, “and I really liked it.”
The Beckers belong to Dragonspire, the Terre Haute “realm” of Dagorhir. There are at least 10 other realms in Indiana. That includes Dunland, a large group based in Brazil and Greencastle. The participants — from teenagers to sixtysomething baby boomers — don shields, tunics, kilts, boots and body armor (often handmade of leather) and commence hand-to-hand combat with heavily padded and safety-tested swords, javelins, arrows and rocks. Thanks to the foam protection, wounds and deaths are only simulated, but one precise jab can cost a competitor the use of a limb or their fantasy life.
(A hit on a limb forces the victim to stop using that arm or leg. Unlike the never-say-die, legless and armless Black Knight in Monty Python’s film “The Holy Grail,” strikes on two limbs, the head or torso causes “death” in Dagorhir scoring.)
Typically, the team with the last warrior standing wins.
Dagorhir (pronounced “dagger-here”) blends history, fantasy and ancient battle techniques. The players adopt their own persona of characters, from Romans to Vikings, elves, goblins or orcs. They take on names, such as Sir Brogas or Plebian Galvorn.
“You get to pretend to be someone else for a day, which is nice,” said Alicia Shamel, a 27-year-old pre-law student at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. “And, you get to be a little violent, without getting in trouble.”
Said Doug Toth, king of Terre Haute’s Dragonspire realm, “It’s the adventure of being in an epic battle, but you don’t have to die.”
It’s like the film set of “Lord of the Rings” without the movie cameras.
A college student created Dagorhir in 1977, inspired by the “Lord of the Rings” books and the movie “Robin and Marian.” It’s gradually spread across the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, according to Chris Neese, king of the Brazil-Greencastle Dunland realm. The pinnacle Dagorhir event is Ragnarok, which draws hundreds of enthusiasts each year. Locally, the Dunland realm began in 2004 and has more than 50 members. Terre Haute’s Dragonspire started in 2007, and includes more than a dozen people.
They are, truly, weekend warriors. Year round, they battle on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with Dunland using Robe Ann Park in Greencastle and Forest Park in Brazil, and Dragonspire competing at Sugar Creek Baptist Church in West Terre Haute.
The sight of armored gladiators launching foam-tipped arrows and swinging padded swords at each other draws double-takes from unsuspecting passers-by.
“We’ll have people stop and look and sort of say, ‘Are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing?’” Neese said, chuckling.
Without their garb, the combatants are just everyday folks, Neese said.
“You’d be surprised,” said the 36-year-old who battles as Sir Brogas. “In Indiana [Dagorhir], we have everything from a Lutheran minister to stay-at-home dads. We have nurses. I’m a union laborer. It’s not just one group. I guess there’s a lot more geeks than people realize.”
The Dagorhir fighters, Neese said, joke about the “geek” label.
Indeed, after the Terre Haute Dragonspire practice last Sunday at the Sugar Creek church, Brendan Becker explained how he got involved. “I’ve been a geek for the last 26 years,” Becker said, grinning. “I had a friend tell me I ought to come out and try it, and I’ve lost 30-some pounds doing it.”
Becker probably dropped a couple pounds that day, with temperatures in the high 90s. Safety is emphasized, though. They take frequent water breaks, and check for signs of dehydration.
Equipment also gets a thorough safety check before each skirmish. Weapons must carry the appropriate padding.
“We get pretty intense. It’s an aerobic, fun, high-energy event,” Toth said, “and we don’t want anybody hurt, because these are friends.”
As for injuries, Toth said, “it’s nothing more than you might see in the average soccer game.”
Toth, 47, competes along with his wife, Cassandra. When Doug got laid off his job in Mishawaka four years ago, they moved to Terre Haute, and he found a job at TRW in Marshall, Ill. His Dagorhir persona is Sir Istvan, a Hungarian nobleman and knight from the 1200s, in honor of Doug’s grandfather, a native of Hungary.
Toth’s garb and weapons — consisting of PVC pipe and foam — cost him about $40 to make.
Because it’s hard to buy good battle tunics these days, most Dagorhir warriors make their own gear, or search for it online, Neese said. His own collection includes a full chest piece, a horseman’s surcoat (running from the neck to the ankles), a burgundy tunic, gray pants, custom-made boots (knee high), and chainmail.
Yes, real chainmail.
This year, when the Brazil-Greencastle realm volunteered for the local March for Babies benefit, Neese felt the weight of his garb. “Seven miles of walking doesn’t seem like much,” he said of the March, “but when you’re packing 40 pounds of chainmail, it can wear you down.”
Neese also has lighter leather armor.
At Terre Haute, Brendan and Jessica Becker made their outfits, including his leather breastplate. Jessica is a costumer for Community Theatre, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Rose-Hulman and Sugar Creek Baptist Church. Brendan, 35, works as a technical coordinator for Time-Warner Cable. Married 13 years, they became Dagorhir regulars 21⁄2 years ago when Brendan started competing. Initially, Jessica was a spectator, along with their two children, and painted Brendan’s armor.
“So it’s kind of a family affair,” she said.
While on the sidelines, Jessica frequently served as a Dagorhir ambassador when onlookers stopped by for a closer look. Unlike drive-by hecklers, those visitors usually just seem curious. “The ones that actually stop are polite,” Jessica said.
Two months ago, Jessica joined the action on the field, too.
Like the Toths and Beckers in the Terre Haute realm, Alicia Shamel participates with her husband, Richard, in the Brazil-Greencastle realm. A friend encouraged Alicia to try Dagorhir. Once she got out on the field, Alicia was pleasantly surprised.
“It definitely wasn’t what I expected,” she said. “I expected a lot more geeky types, but it was pretty cool.”
Her persona is an elf, who dabbles as an apothecary and alchemist, a maker of herbs and potions. She tries to attend every function, though college classes and work can disrupt those plans. “Real life comes first, unfortunately,” she said, with a laugh.
Still, when Alicia earns her law degree sometime in the future, she doesn’t intend to give up her Dagorhir. In fact, the Dunland realm includes a practicing lawyer. “So I plan on doing the same thing,” she said.