Article: Ladies Can Fight

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Ladies Can Fight
By Lady Gunhilda of Ansteorra
(Reposted with permission of the author from Issue 4 of the Flower of Souvenance: Letters for the Falcon Gentle, published circa 1988-1991, exact date unknown.)
I guess I'm writing this to encourage other lady fighters who are just starting out and may be getting frustrated. As acting Knight Marshal for the Shire of Mooneschadowe, my favorite saying is; "Don't worry, it'll come with time and practice."

It's true. Some people have a natural talent for fighting. they have an instinctive grace for bashing people's brains out. Others have to work at it. Hitting people with heavy sticks just doesn't come naturally to some of us. Me, I was born a klutz. One of my former boyfriends once told me that I have the manual dexterity of a Yak in labor. It was not the sort of thing one usually tells a girlfriend on a date, and the fact that he mentioned it in such unique terms serves to illustrate just how uncoordinated I really am.

This did not deter my interest, however, when I first heard about fighting in the SCA. I have always loved reading fantasy. As a kid in middle school, I wanted to grow up to be Eowyn of Rohan. Of course, I would have settled for being Joan of Arc or Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and War, or Brynhilda the Valkyrie. But it wasn't until my senior year in high school that I first heard about the SCA ... and Sir Cyf of Ansteorra. A real, honest-to-gosh lady fighter? In THIS world? I couldn't believe it.

I was hooked after that. I clearly remember my first time in armor. It was all borrowed, of course, and it didn't fit properly. I was extremely proud of myself, anyway, despite the fact that I knew I looked silly. The local Knight Marshal, Squire Hildebrandt Von Tiel (who is now a Knight), took me out onto the field and showed me how to hold a sword and shield. He threw some shots at me, slowly, and I feebly tried to block them. He'd throw a shot. It would hit my head. And then I would raise my shield. I didn't manage to block a single shot all evening, but it was fun. I was in armor. Holding a shield. Holding a sword. Getting beat up by a Squire...!

In the ensuing weeks and months, Hildebrandt never said a word about how badly I was doing. People kept encouraging me, telling me to stick with it. There were times when I wondered why I did. Those were the hot summer days when I wore jeans instead of shorts because people would see the bruises on my arms and legs and ask me if I had been in a car wreck. (It's true!) I knew I wasn't very good. But people stayed behind me, and I persisted. I eventually made a joke out of it, calling myself, "Hilda Bell Von Pell" because everybody I fought would "ring my bell" at will.

I did improve. But it was a very slow process. I got to where I could throw a decent leg shot. I got to where I could, sometimes, avoid being killed for a respectable amount of time. My morale received quite a boost when a close friend asked me to be the champion for his wife, since he didn't fight. This gave me a cause to fight for, and provided additional incentive to stick with it.

After about a year, I made my fighting debut at the University of Oklahoma's yearly Medieval Festival. This is a very big SCA demo. I was very nervous because I hadn't fought many different people and I had never fought in a melee. I didn't want to make a fool out of myself in front of the whole crowd, and I knew I probably would if I went out to fight.

My friends, however, were not about to let me watch the fighting from the safety of the sidelines, as I had originally planned. Near the end of the day, when the fighters were starting to get tired and the crowd had thinned out just a little, I was told to armor up.

They literally had to push me onto the field, however, when I realized they had set me up to fight Duke Inman. I, like many other newbies, held the man in complete awe. His Grace had been warned that I was a newbie, and told me that we'd just exchange a few rounds for practice. He also told me that I didn't have to fall down unless I wanted to. This saved me considerable embarrassment because he promptly proceeded to kill me several times in rapid sequence.

I did my best to defend myself and try to fight back, but it seemed impossible. But then, when my helmet was still ringing from the last kill, His Grace fell down to his knees. I froze, thinking he'd slipped. I stepped back, waiting for him to get up. He didn't. He stayed there. Finally, in a somewhat exasperated voice, he said, "Good leg." My heart stopped.

It's a terrible feeling - to be standing there at your first fighting event, in front of a fairly large crowd, staring at DUKE INMAN on his knees in front of you - and you realize you haven't the faintest idea how to kill someone on the ground.

I believe the phrase running through my mind at the time was, "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit... what the HELL do I do now??!" A couple of friends were over on the sidelines frantically trying to catch my attention so they could demonstrate, but I didn't notice.

"Come on!" Inman said, "You can do it!"

I tried. I tried three times, and only stepped on him once. As I was backing out the third time, he rose up and clunked me on the head, and I went rolling in the dust. The crowd cheered. Inman told me as I walked off the field that I'd actually hit his leg three times, but only the last had been hard enough. I stuttered something in response and let my friends lead me off.

Since then, I have improved even more. I've had a couple of major setbacks: shoulder surgery one year, a dislocated knee cap seven months later. (I did the latter doing a dance at a revel, incidentally. As I said, I'm a klutz.) I am currently squired to the man who threw those first shots at me four years ago, when I couldn't block a single one. I still have a long, long way to go, but I have also come a long way. I've had a few moments of triumph, and many moments of despair. But I haven't quit. And I'd like to encourage any other lady fighters out there who might be just as lousy as I was when I started fighting to stick with it just as well.

Photo by Gitana de Castile, Permission to Post via her estate.

Someday, SOMEDAY, you'll have that moment of glory that will make it all worthwhile. It may not be something big. It may just be doing a particularly spectacular death. It may be pulling off your first successful spin shot without falling down in the process. It may be killing the Prince with a visor shot because he got sloppy during fighter practice. (A friend of mine, who has been fighting for less than three months did that recently. The Prince took her seriously after that.) Whatever the case, there will come a time when you'll say to yourself, "Yeah. It's been worth all the bruises and soreness and frustration."

I'll never forget watching one very short lady fighter facing Godzilla on the field during a tournament. He was, quite literally, twice her height. She was using a mace and he was armed with a sword. She couldn't even reach his head. But in the middle of the fight, when he was all over her, she jumped straight up into the air, whipped her mace over the top of his shield, and walloped him on the top of his head as hard as she could. He went flying. It was one of the prettiest shots I've ever seen. And I've never forgotten it. It was inspirational.

Ladies can fight. Ladies DO fight. Ladies WILL fight. It just comes with time and practice.