Rafe had visited a lot of different paintball fields in his twenty-five years of life. Most of them essentially followed the same basic styles, lots of pallets and barrels and boards surrounding bare-bone structures. Some were in open fields with plenty of room and some man-made hills. Others were in woods with lots of rocks. All had plenty of weeds and undergrowth because they offered cover and because no one wanted to actually maintain them. Last of all, everything was covered in splotches of fresh and faded paint.
No matter what field he visited, even if it was new to him, it was the same. It helped him feel comfortable and at home, in a sense.
Briarsberry Woods was not like any field he’d played in before. Just finding information on the place had been a hassle, as if the owners didn’t want people to discover it. What’s more, when he pulled into the parking lot on a Friday afternoon, the people he saw leaving their vehicles didn’t look anything like he expected. Most didn’t have masks or even guns for that matter.
The main building wasn’t a rundown bungalow. It was a full-blown building with cream-colored walls and ornate wooden trim that made it feel like a large, European cottage. The inside was a modern take on those cottages. There was rustic furniture, stacks of assorted magazines ranging in topic from paintball to fantasy, hand-carved and painted wooded banisters, computers and a single stick of burning incense resided on the front desk, and not a speck of grim in sight. The place was spotless.
Rafe had never seen an office for a paintball field like this before. He didn’t understand it, or the odd looks he got from some of the other patrons as he walked by with his bag of gear.
When he approached the counter, a woman with long blonde hair done up in fancy braids like a princess, which felt out of place given her green collared shirt and jeans, greeted him. “Oh, hello! You must be new here.” Her nametag read Madelynn.
Rafe nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t even know this place existed.” He watched as some of the people entering watched her with wonder. A few even bowed.
Madelynn ignored them and focused on Rafe. “We try to keep it that way. We aren’t your usual paintball field.”
He nodded toward some of the players who looked like they were going to a renaissance fair rather than a paintball match. “I was picking up on that.”
“This weekend, we are hosting a special event where players will be staying in the park for the next two nights for one of our longest games on record.”
Rafe had never heard of such a thing before. “You do that often?”
Madelynn frowned slightly. “Not really, but one of our more prevalent players organized the whole thing and he’s earned enough or a rep to warrant such a thing.” She lowered her voice and leaned forward. “Honestly, he managed to find a loophole in park rules. The owner wasn’t too pleased, but let it slide this one time. Needless to say, she’ll be tightening the rules from here on out.”
Rafe wondered how a player could manage to pull something like that off and still get away with it as Madelynn reached into a drawer and pulled out a stapled collection of papers and handed them over.
He accepted the form and studied it. “What’s this?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “It’s your usual waiver, showing that you acknowledge the risks you’re taking by playing on our field, blah, blah, blah. If you’re interested in playing, you this weekend, you’ll have to sign it.”
As Rafe skimmed through the papers, he noted the underlined and bolded sentence stating outside gear was prohibited. That explained the weird looks he got. Further in, there was a non-disclosure clause that stated in difficult to follow legalese, players were not allowed to tell other people about Briarsberry Woods, which explained why Rafe had never heard of the place before. It also made him wonder why that even existed. Companies usually wanted more clients, not less.
Other than that, nothing seemed out of place on the document. It was all the same legal mumbo jumbo he was used to seeing, so he signed the paper and handed it back. He didn’t have any plans this weekend and was curious to see what kind of gameplay could occur over an extended game.
She studied the papers for a moment. Setting them on the desk. “Okay, Rafe it looks like you’re good to go. Did you see the bit about no outside gear?”
When Rafe nodded, she continued.
“Good. We have lockers that you can use, and I’ll have Julien show you around. We don’t get a lot of newcomers.”
Rafe chuckled. “That might have something to do with your non-disclosure clause.”
Madelynn smiled in response like she was used to hearing that. “True, but we like to keep this place a secret.” She left for a moment and returned with a short man with dark hair and shockingly bright green eyes who wore an identical uniform to Madelynn’s. He was a whole head and a half shorter than Rafe.
“Rafe, this is Julien, he’ll show you around. I hope you have a fun weekend.”
“Nice to meet you, Rafe.” Julien offered his hand and Rafe shook it. The man then led Rafe to one of the side doors.
They were almost to the door when Rafe turned around in a flash. “Wait, how much for the event?”
“Oh, it’s free. Everything game here is free. That’s why we like to keep things secret.”
Rafe stared at her in shock. Before he could respond with that’s unbelievable, she gave a little wave and headed into the back office.
Julien guided Rafe through the locker room where he stored all of his gear, and the pair changed into “game appropriate attire” which were basic trousers and tunics. Then the pair head through the back door onto a concrete patio that overlooked a forested valley. The lowest point in the rim of surrounding mountains seemed to be right where the main office had been built. The building served as a gate to the entire area.
In a sweeping gesture, Julien indicated the valley. “This is Briarsberry Woods.”
Rafe stepped up to the railing and let out a breath. He could see for miles from the top of this cliff. Stairs wound their way down the cliff where the roofs of buildings were just visible beneath the canopy of trees. Faint columns of smoke drifted up in several different places.
“How big is this place?” Rafe turned to his guide for answers.
“The owner, players call her the Queen, owns all the land within the valley, up to the peaks of the mountains.”
“Seriously?” This was, by far, the biggest park Rafe had ever been to.
Julien nodded as he descended the stairs to the valley floor with Rafe hurrying after him. Julien explained how the games worked here and why outside gear was banned. When he finished, Rafe frowned. “This isn’t paintball, this is LARP.”
Rafe had never really had any interest in Live-Action Role-Play. He just wanted to shoot stuff with his paintball gun, not wander around in goofy clothes swinging foam swords, even if they did ooze paint. That just seemed silly.
Julien shrugged as he dismounted the last step and started up a well-worn dirt path. “It’s both.”
Rafe stared in shock at the town before him, because that was what he saw. It wasn’t some collection of ramshackle buildings quickly thrown together. There were dozens of buildings, a few were very large, and all with ornate carvings and decorations that made the place feel like something out of a fantasy book just like the main office had.
Julien pointed to one of the larger buildings. “There’s the Academy. You can learn more about combat there. You can even practice your balance.” He pointed to a tween standing on a tightrope a foot or so off the ground, struggling to keep his balance.
“That over there is the Nightingale Tavern. You can get food there, and has been turned into an inn with beds for the event.”
“What exactly is this event even?”
Just like Madelynn, Julien frowned before answering. “We aren’t quite sure. It is being put on by Lord Austin.”
The title caught Rafe off guard. “Lord?”
“Yes, we use a feudal ranking system here, and Lord Austin is one of our most prolific players for how he uses the system.”
The way Julien said the words, Rafe got the idea that this Lord wasn’t well-liked. Given that he’d used a loophole to get this whole event going implied that he found many ways to get to twist rules into his favor.
“If you wish to meet him, his people gather at Dragon Manor.” Julien indicated a large, two-story building where a red and green dragon banister was hung over the door.
“No thanks, I’m good.”
Julien didn’t seem surprised by this choice and continued to lead Rafe toward what looked like a blacksmith shop. It would have been more convincing if all of the weapons weren’t made of plastic and foam.
Still, the man working the “forge” looked the part. He was a stocky, well-built man with long dark hair pulled into a bun and a matching braided beard.
“This is Master Amiti, our local dwarf and blacksmith. You can get all of the weapons and gear you need from him. Amiti, this is Rafe.” Since Amiti was around the same height as Julien, just a little bit taller, Rafe figured calling the man a dwarf was appropriate but ironic.
The man shook Rafe’s hand, nearly crushing it while appraising him with a stern face. He then turned to his colleague with a raised eyebrow. “What brings you to these parts, wee one? You don’t normally leave the castle on the hill?”
“Madelynn asked me to show him around. Would you please take care of him from here on out?”
The answer seemed to soften the dwarf’s gruff exterior. “Right, I’ll take excellent care of him.”
“See that you do, Master Dwarf.” Julien turned to Rafe and offered a smile. “You’re in capable hands. If you need anything else, just talk to the people. They’ll be able to steer you in the right direction.”
He turned to leave, but Amiti pulled him aside. He looked left and right, eyed Rafe for a bit, then spoke in a low voice. “I’ve heard the rumors spreading through the townsfolk. Lord Austin has put this whole business together to search for the final piece of the seal. He’s offering night hood and a swath of his land for anyone who can find it.”
Julien’s face lost some of its color. “I’ll let Her Majesty know.” He then hurried away without looking back.
“Everyone really takes this whole medieval thing seriously here, huh?” Rafe asked with a laugh. He found all of this odd, and slightly amusing.
The serious response he got from the blacksmith told him the man didn’t find that funny. “For many of us, it’s a way of life here.” Amiti went to a rack of swords.
Rafe followed him. “Well, obviously. You work here, but what about when you go home?”
Amiti picked up one of the swords with a grunt. “Briarsberry is my home.” He handed his selected sword to Rafe.
Rafe took the plastic blade, finding it heavier than expected. “It’s heavy for plastic.”
“What did you expect, it’s filled with paint. When you hit someone with it, it’ll leave a mark.”
Rafe studied the blade’s edge, trying to understand it. “That’s pretty cool. How’s it work.”
Amiti crossed his arms. “Company secret. How’s that feel?”
Rafe gave it a few practice swings, not really sure what he was supposed to be checking. It was a new sensation, but the blade swung easily enough. “It feels alright.”
“Not too heavy?”
Rafe shook his head.
“Good then hears a hilt and belt.” He proffered the items and Rafe took them and put them on. “You’re all set.”
Rafe’s head snapped up. “What about armor? Kind of like that.” He pointed to a flashy plastic suit that stood on a mannequin. Sure it was plastic, but the silver pieces with gold trim looked pretty cool. Rafe figured he wouldn’t mind wearing something like that.
Amiti burst into a deep, bellowing laugh. “That’s armor for a Lord! Armor like that has to be earned.”
“So, if I were to find this seal thing, I could get armor like that?”
The question caused Amiti to stifle his laughter and grow serious once again. “I’ve got work to do.” He moved to a workbench where a mangled plastic sword rested.
Rafe got the feeling that it was best if he left. He decided to go to the academy that Julien had mentioned. There, one of the employees got him started on some basic swordsmanship. After about half an hour of that, Rafe grew restless.
“So, when does the fighting start?”
The woman, Vela, corrected his stance and then shrugged. “Likely tomorrow. Today is all about prepping for the weekend, and there will be a banquet this evening hosted by Lord Austin. He’ll explain more then, along with Her Majesty.”
Rafe’s shoulders slumped, which she quickly corrected. “So what am I supposed to do until then?”
He’d been keen to try out this bizarre LARP-ing paintball thing he discovered, but this was taking forever and becoming increasingly complicated. None of this felt like it was just a game, at least not to the regulars.
Vela stepped back and clasped her hands. “That is up to you. I would be more than happy to train you because, to be honest, you need the practice.”
The comment didn’t make Rafe feel any better about this.
She quickly tried to make up for the mistake, a blush coating her cheeks. “My apologies, I just meant you have clearly never used a sword before.”
This time his whole body slumped. “Thanks.”
When she opened her mouth to say more, he stopped her. “No, no. you’re not wrong, but you could be a little less blunt about it.” He slid his sword into his scabbard and relaxed his stance.
Vela bowed her head and then brushed a strand of red hair behind her ear. “So what will you do?”
“I think I’ll explore the town a little more, but I’ll come back. Thank you for the lesson.” Rafe bowed to her, it felt like the right thing to do in this place, and when Vela curtsied back, he decided he’d made the right choice.
For the rest of the afternoon, Rafe wandered through the town, checking out the different shops and interacting with other players. Briarsberry Woods seemed to have a whole economy going within the game and was proving to be far more complex than he had initially assumed. It was like its own little world down here.
He eventually returned to the Academy for another lesson with Vela, who by the end of it, said he’d made some minor improvement. The pair got along well, and she walked with him to the tavern as the town crier announced the beginning of the feast.
Flickering lanterns illuminated the darkening street as they walked to the brightly lit tavern, where people and tables now spilled out onto the roadway. As Rafe took in the sight, he could almost forget that this was just a game and that they weren’t really in medieval times.
The closer they got, the stronger the scent of the meat sizzling on the grill became, making his mouth water. His stomach grumbled and he couldn’t wait to gobble up whatever food he could get his hands on.
End of Part 1
(Sorry, this ended up being much longer than I anticipated. I swear the story gets to the stranger mixing things up and that I'll finish this story at some point.)