When most think of Valentine’s Day, chocolates, roses and teddy bears come to mind, but for some locals, the day is also associated with combat.
While combat may come off as an overly harsh word, the members of Zorn Vongal, a local live-action role-play group, or LARP, put up quite a fight each season. For the past few years, the group has hosted the Jilted Lovers’ Battle in Darden Towe Park in Albemarle County as an opportunity to get together during an often lonely part of the year.
“It’s an opportunity for people to get out, have some fun and hit each other during a time of the year that can be a little tough and cold,” said Joe “Cy” Compton, the local realm’s founder. “People come to hang out with their friends, make some new ones and blow off some steam.”
Zorn Vongal is the local chapter of the worldwide Dagorhir Battle Game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The game began in 1977 when a group of college students at the University of Maryland, sharing a passion for the books and medieval history, went out and whacked each other with broomsticks. It has since evolved to include safer, foam-covered weaponry and various scenarios based loosely on the books.
While Zorn Vongal is active in the Charlottesville community, Compton said the group initially started in Greene County. Since its inception, the group has grown dramatically, he said, and become a family affair, with his son and daughter also participating.
While Zorn Vongal regularly meets Sunday afternoons to practice in Darden Towe, its roughly quarterly event meetups bring people from all over the region, even as far away as Maryland, according to Compton.
On Sunday, dozens of combatants clad in armor — either real or improvised — clashed, the thud of foam against pad reverberating through the park. In a simulation of real injuries, players struck in the limbs would feign damage, sometimes crawling on their knees in pursuit of their targets.
Foam-covered arrows soared through the air, teeth were gnashed and warriors fell, their knees sinking into the soft-sodded ground, stained with mild disappointment instead of blood. The commitment of these warriors was clear, a mixture of determination and glee shining across their faces; the combat may have been pretend but the fight was real.
These early-afternoon fights were only a precursor for the special Jilted Lovers’ events: two-on-two couples battles. These battles may have been quicker but the emotional stakes were much higher.
Caroline “Rota” Burns and her partner, Jason “Trym the Troll” Barber, traveled from Culpeper County with members of their group, Alvasari Wargaming. The two said they regularly travel to meetups hosted by Zorn Vongal and particularly enjoy the ones during milder times of the year, when their armor isn’t as hot to wear.
“We’re a welcoming bunch of people,” Burns said. “Some people come to play and others come just to be in costume, breathing life into this fantasy. It’s really whatever you want it to be.”
When in combat, Barber wears a forest-green troll half-mask, the mixture of skin-like glove leather and more-rough leather transforming him. Dressing up is a huge part of the fun, he said, and crafting a character to fit within a realm can be complicated.
On a hill overlooking the battlefield, Jordan Wilson and Landon Rhody were observing the day’s event. The couple had heard about the meetup on the Charlottesville subreddit and were curious to check it out.
As a fan of renaissance fairs, Wilson said she had been excited to see something similar happening nearby. Though she and Rhody were not sure if they planned to participate in any larping soon, Wilson said she was impressed by what she had learned about the group’s work in building and repairing family relationships.
“One of the organizers told me that they do work to help combat veterans and offer sort-of family therapy, which, as a school counselor, I find really cool,” she said.