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Updated: Feb 19

At the King’s Cup

My heart is racing like overwound clockworks though I’m doing nothing but sitting in the nave of the church, half-watching the bouts ahead of mine. It’s a wonderful space – fuel for my slightly frenetic imagination. Visions of Templars in surcoats, knights pledging fealty, and Cardinals plotting against musketeers flicker briefly through my mind.

These fleeting fancies are driven away as another clash of steel draws my attention. Two of the other fencers in my pool have begun. It’s just after 9:00 in the morning and I will be among the first to fight, though the band of red or blue that helps the judges score the match has not yet been velcroed to my arm. I try to concentrate on the match. I’ll be up against one of them eventually, so I make the attempt to consider what I might do differently. Truthfully, it’s hard to pay attention to anything apart from the racing of my pulse. It feels like I’ve downed three espressos in a hurry.

I wander over to chat with a few of the other fighters but I don’t really register the conversations. I think a few of them are as jacked as me, but others seem calm and conversational. Veterans of the HEMA wars, one could say.

I’m sure that this feeling is familiar to anyone who’s done competitive sports, but it’s been years, decades really, since I’ve been in any sort of tournament. I’ve done a few 5K and 10K runs, but this – this is different.

Then the chap in charge of the velcro is strapping a band of blue around my arm and I’m ‘on deck.’

I think about what it must have been like to prepare for a duel. To anticipate the possibility of your own death. That inescapable tension, the adrenaline flowing through your veins like a freight train. The sense that there was no alternative to what was before you – honour, and thus your status in society, must be defended. The realization that there were only two options: victory or defeat.

Of course I face the same two possible outcomes, with one notable difference. If I am defeated, I will simply move on to the next fight. I don’t have to deal with the mind-crushing (and potentially bowel-clearing) fear of death. I only have to worry about a few points on a scoreboard. Despite this rather pedestrian reality, there is a sense of finality about the bouts that I will fight today. A sense of consequence that is absent from bouts in the club or the friendly sociability of a fight night.

Not that folks here are any less chatty or friendly, but there is often a slightly frenetic tone to our conversations. We are here for two days of fighting for one purpose; to see who will come out on top.

The last duel in (what would become) Canada was fought in 1873 in Newfoundland.(

There, the seconds filled the pistols with blanks, ensuring that after a horrifying moment (one of the duelists fainted) they could all go out for drinks afterwards. And, yes, apparently they actually did this.

That situation reminds me of this one: a great deal of tension, competitiveness and internal focus followed by those hectic moments of beautiful chaos (as one of my instructors calls it) while we attempt to ‘slay’ our opponents. There can be only one, after all.

But behind all this is the reassurance that there will be beers afterwards. Our own little slice of Valhalla.

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