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"People like to see death, people like to see people biting it," explains Eric Medved, waving his steel sword for emphasis. "We need to show good biting!" Medved's half-dozen tunic-clad pupils nod thoughtfully. This cramped Denver back yard, where dented shields rest against the composter, functions as a training ground for members of Fjellborg Vikings, Colorado's Viking reenactor society. Today's lesson: How to "bite it."
Loren Schultz (Viking name: Lodin) watches closely from the sidelines as Fjellborg members hone their disemboweling and death rattles under the supervision of Medved (Viking name: Erik). Schultz is the founder and leader of this troupe; this is also his home, and he runs a tight long ship. Trade your steel blades for foam versions, he instructs two young boys: "It kind of dampens the spirit if we kill somebody."
Schultz steers clear of the swordplay. His bad back, which forced him to retire from his contractor job, is a liability on the battlefield. And he's a craftsman, not a fighter. In his power-tool-crammed garage, Guess belts are turned into scabbard straps and scavenged deer bones are converted into knife handles. In the basement, mead and chokecherry wine ferment in glass tanks. In another cellar corner, linen and wool await transformation into tunics, cloaks and trousers. Nearby is the war room, packed with axes, helmets and chain mail -- much of it made by Schultz.
It's all about "going period," being as historically accurate as possible, he explains while caressing a sea chest fastened with nails forged by hand. "The media always gets Vikings wrong. How would you feel if you were at Gettysburg and someone showed up as a Civil War soldier with an AK-47?"
Upstairs, by the doughnuts and cold cuts, a woman fills out Fjellborg's new-member form and safety waiver. Outside, two men discuss hybrid cars before switching to more appropriate subjects: "Who suggested Intro to Old Norse? My copy just came in." Schultz listens in, then turns to a woman nervously watching two men hack at one another. "Don't worry," he says. "The woman over there is a veterinarian, so we have a doctor on site."
As battle fatigue sets in, the Vikings retire to the back porch, where Schultz explains to new members how Fjellborg was born. "What got me into reenacting were online computer games," he says. "My computer teammates started saying they were twelve and thirteen, and I said I'm fifty, and none of them wanted to play with me anymore." So two years ago he decided to re-create the world of his Scandinavian forebears in his back yard ("The Vikings are cool. What can you say?"), and others joined the cause. Now they practice their skills weekly for future mock battles with other Viking groups. Someday, they may travel across the Atlantic, where the nouveau Vikings are as ferocious as the real thing. "What I know of the Russian Vikings is that they don't use any safety equipment," says Schultz. "They almost always end up bloodied!"
These furious Norsemen also engage in public education, through their website (www.fjellborg.org) and in person. They teach sword-fighting safety classes to Cub Scout troops, showing them how not to put their eyes out. They set up living-history camps at medieval festivals, explaining to new-agers that, no, Vikings never intermingled with the Anasazi. And last October, they braved their riskiest campaign: the 2006 Columbus Day parade.
Fjellborg members would like to believe the Denver Sons of Italy invited them to the controversial event because Norsemen reached America before Columbus -- but these Vikings aren't naive. "I think they invited us as sort of spoilers for the fight," says Schultz. "I think we threw the protesters a bit. They said to us, 'The Vikings killed more people than Columbus!' And their point is...?"
Eleven-year-old Josh Burgin (Viking name: Agnar) interrupts the banter. He wants to see Schultz temper a steel blade. Schultz agrees, escorting Burgin to his hand-built brick forge, situated in an undisclosed location. There's nothing illegal about the operation, but Schultz can just imagine the red tape if neighbors were to discover that steel swords and battle-axes were being forged in fire next door.
Vikings may be brave and bloodthirsty, but they don't mess with bureaucrats.