We listened to 1930s music in the car, pretending we were on a country jaunt in our new automobile. But when we finally made it out to the country -- or at least to Yolo County Fairgrounds -- we had to go a lot further back than 70 years. Standing in the muddy parking lot, we shed our jeans and sweats and button-down shirts and put on the garb of medieval peasants. We could see the colorful peaks of royal pavilions over the roofs of several RVs parked nearby. Just as I was pulling my handmade linen underdress over my head, a knight clanked by in his armor. He was talking on a smartphone.
Quinn, Jesse, Danny, and I followed another set of peasants toward a very nonmedieval chain-link fence that would be the gateway to our strange adventure. Little Ada, wearing a tiny quilted princess dress with purple trim that matched her sash, wasn't impressed by anything -- not the Russian ladies in their fur, not the Renaissance rapier fights taking place next to eighth-century cudgel matches, and not the magic potions for sale next to leather vambraces.
"I'm cold," she declared definitively. "Let's go home."
But we couldn't turn back now. We had come from afar to see the bout to end all bouts. Its winner would ascend to the throne of the Kingdom of the West. Weaving between dogs in jester outfits, humans in thick leather belts and thicker capes, tents full of strange supplies, and a group of women with beaten copper mugs of mead and bags of Doritos, we at last arrived at a wide, marshy promenade around the battlefield. One end of the football field-size arena was devoted to practice, while at the other end the current king and queen of the West presided over the fights that would determine the kingdom's future. The fighters, whose efforts were getting them muddy and grass-stained, came from every place and time. Some were dressed in the garb of Arthurian legends, while others had studied early-modern British history and had perfectly re-created weapons of the period. Some had meticulously knitted their chain mail out of repurposed coat hanger wire, while others had ordered it on the Internet.
"He's hit! He's hit!" someone yelled enthusiastically as a knight fell to his knees. When a fighter has been hit on the leg, he or she must keep fighting while kneeling. A hit to the arm means no more using that arm in the bout.
"A hit to the head or torso usually means death," a serf from Southern California told us. "But ultimately the fighter determines whether it's a killing blow. Only the fighter can judge, and it's a matter of honor to take hits when they fall. Certainly some have become king by not acknowledging hits, but they're in the minority."
"What time exactly are we in?" I asked.
"The Dark Ages," replied the serf.
"But this can't be the Dark Ages," I argued, gesturing at all the early-second-millennium finery around me. "The Dark Ages come after the fall of the Roman Empire and stretch into about 500 AD. Really, this is the Middle Ages, which start in the 500s and stretch into the early-modern period, say the 1400s." I neglected to tell him about the Battle of Maldon, which marks a key turning point in Anglo-Saxon history of the 900s. It's when the Anglo-Saxons finally kicked Viking ass. Although my companions were dressed as Vikings, I had decided I was an Anglo-Saxon.
"Well, we just call it the Dark Ages," the serf said, edging away.
Quinn rolled her eyes and started snapping pictures of the final bout. A cute herald with long blond hair called out the names of the fighters, the ladies for whom they fought, and their standards. She was interrupted briefly by another herald, who announced that somebody's car was being towed. Then the fight was on. An Arthurian knight in white who bore a broken lance instead of a shield was fighting a lanky 12th-century fellow in what looked like black Kevlar. At last the Arthurian knight struck the killing hit. After much heralding he was crowned king, and crowned his lovely partner queen, in a ceremony that was both touching and theatrical.
Night was falling, and the cold was getting to us. We decided to skip the feasting and head straight to Fry's Electronics without changing our garb. Wandering the warm, clean aisles, we were one of many strange, anachronistic groups who had traveled through time and/or space to buy laptops and WiFi equipment. Nobody looked twice at us. It was just another Saturday night in geekland.