Fighters battle it out during the "Rise of the Knights III" tournament
Berlin - AFP
The sound of swords crashing on to steel armour resonates around the municipal sports hall as two teams of heavily-armoured knights commence a ferocious battle.
One combatant launches himself into another, hauls his opponent to the ground, then regains his footing to smash his sword into another's helmet.
Welcome to Rise of the Knights III -- the third edition of a Medieval Combat tournament held in an innocuous sports hall in Bernau, near Berlin.
Teams from across Europe clashed in a day-long series of five-against-five battles on Saturday.
Forget about choreographed re-enactment battles where no one gets hurt.
Medieval Combat is a full-contact sport where armour-clad participants attack each other armed with an array of weapons.
A small team of referees ensure the strict rules are followed during the violent clashes in a fenced-off area.
Rather than kill an opponent, as in medieval times, victory means putting your opponent on the floor and the winning team is decided by who is left standing in the best of three rounds.
Blows to the neck, feet, back of knees, groin and throat are strictly prohibited, but punching, kicking and tripping your opponent is allowed.
The swords must not be sharpened, while the armour, which costs around 1,200 euros (US$1,357) for a set, has to all come from a specific historic period.
It's neither for the unfit nor faint-hearted as each combatant carries roughly an extra 25 kilos (55 pounds) of armour.
The weapons, ranging from long swords to polearms (wooden shafts with a blade on top), are blunt on all sides, but the fights are very real.
"We had one guy sent to hospital with a cut near the eye, lots of bruises, a broken arm and a broken leg," organiser Adam Nawrot, Vice President of the governing body, the International Medieval Combat Federation (IMCF), told AFP.
The event has grown from a handful of teams in 2013 to 30 teams from across Europe this year.
Poland I defeated the 2014 champions Battle Heritage Lions, made up of the English and Welsh national teams, 2-1 in this year's final.
The tournament served as a warm-up for the world championships held at Malbork Castle, a world UNESCO site, near Gdansk, Poland, from April 30-May 3 when the USA will defend their title.
"I used to be involved in re-enactment groups, but I got frustrated because I had a weapon I couldn't really use properly," said Frenchman Julien Roumaud wearing his replica 14th century armour.
The 33-year-old carpenter from Clermont-Ferrand had driven 18 hours across Europe with the French national team to compete.
"It's the complete sport, you have to be in top shape to cope with running around carrying heavy armour -- it's why I don't drink anymore.
"I train for about eight hours per week, skills and strategy, plus lots of cardio work like boxing.
"The fights look like a big mess, but it's very organised.
"The adrenaline takes over, sure you are afraid, but it's a good fear, it focuses the mind."
- The red mist comes down -
During one bout, the referees struggle to stop a combatant who rains down blows on a floored opponent, which earns a yellow card.
"Sometimes the red mist comes down when you're in there," explains Pawel Kurzak, 36, of the Battle Heritage Lions.
"All sorts get involved from computer geeks to bankers and lawyers -- there's even a rocket scientist in the Germany team.
"Western culture has evolved so that no one wants to upset or offend anyone.
"But here, you get two teams who accept the dangers and challenge.
"We're friends outside the arena, but in there it's a very, very different story."
A part-time security officer and fitness instructor, Kurzak played rugby after arriving in London from Poland in 2007, but was hooked when he first saw Medieval Combat.
Kurzak's desire to earn a place on the England team for the world championships is evident as he floors opponents in the early rounds with his polearm.
"I'll happily sing both the Polish and English anthems if I'm selected for Malbork," he says with a grin.
His strapping team-mate Luke Woods, another former rugby player, who teaches archery and makes bows, uses his bulk to flatten opponents.
"For someone my size, wrestling is important, if I just stand there hitting you, I'm wasting energy," said the 28-year-old from Caterham, Surrey.
"It's like rugby or American Football, there is a place for everyone, no matter what your size or shape.
"I've always liked the idea of having a scrap -- what little boy doesn't want to hit someone with a sword?
"For me, it encompasses everything I like about rugby, fighting and history, so I was hooked."
Woods explains how concussions occur if helmets are not fitted properly, while dislocated knees and shoulders are common.
"It tends to be joints giving way when two guys clash -- it's a lot of weight to put on a pivot," he added.
A bout is quickly stopped when one combatant's helmet flies off with the force of a blow.
"Most important is the steel cod piece," said Ingo Teske, from Battle Heritage South Africa who was in Bernau on a fact-finding mission with hopes of sending a team to the world championships.
"That's the piece of equipment you most want to protect."