LITCHFIELD — It might have looked and sounded like a medieval battle between enemies, but the War in the North was more of a competition between friends.
The first armored combat event of its kind in Minnesota, the War in the North on Oct. 26 brought fighting teams from Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago and the Twin Cities to the Meeker County Fairgrounds in Litchfield. At least 200 people attended to see the bouts between the teams and individual fighters, all decked out in historically accurate suits of armor and using medieval, though blunted, weapons like axes and swords.
"It was everything we hoped for," said Pete Moe, a fighter with the Twin Cities Wyverns and the organizer behind setting up the War in the North.
By the end of the day, the Dallas Warlords, both the men's and women's teams, came out on top. The Wyverns' men and women teams came in second.
"It was a lot of fun," said Brennon Freeman, captain of the Dallas Warlords. "I felt very welcomed, I felt wanted."
Many of the fighters have faced off against each other before. Fighters also know of each other and look forward to when they can meet and compete.
"I've been looking forward to fighting Julee (Slovacek) for a long time," said Ashley McNamara, a fighter with the Wyverns.
"Me too, fighting Ashley," said Slovacek, a fighter with the Warlords.
With only about 700 armored combat participants in the United States, a rather close-knit community has grown up among the teams. They'll travel hundreds of miles at a time to go to an event, try to beat each other up during the battles and then turn around and go to dinner together.
"You have a team and a community to be a part of," Freeman said.
For many of the fighters, joining an armored combat team was when they found their niché with people like themselves. This is especially true for the women. Female armored fighters are still rare, so those who do join the sport are thrilled to find like-minded women to befriend. You want to knock a person down, but then you are there to help them back up.
"It is the most encouraging and competitive group of women. It is all friendship and camaraderie and kicking each other's butts," McNamara said.
"I couldn't believe how encouraging the women fighting community is," added Mimi Esherick, a member of the Twin Cities Wyverns.
Armored combat might seem like an odd sort of sport to get involved with, but for those who compete it is exactly what they were looking for.
"I am a driven competitor. This is the purest form of competition you can find," Freeman said.
Moe, a retired semi-pro football player, said he came across armored combat by chance. He had just retired from football and thought he was looking for something that would be a little easier on his body. Instead he watched an episode of the History Channel series "Knight Fight."
"I could do that," said Moe, a Grove City firefighter and an Eden Valley police officer. He has been going at his new sport for over a year, watching videos and traveling to the Twin Cities weekly for practice.
There is a lot of strategy and planning involved in the fights, whether it is a duel between two competitors or a melee where teams face off against each other. It is not just rushing in and starting to wack people on the head with a blunted sword.
"It is strategic whacking," said Lauryn Lueken of the Dallas Warlords.
Those who just started fighting find themselves having to learn how to battle plan and use the weapons.
"I am still learning to think like a fighter, stop and think about what I have to do," said Lueken, who has been fighting for only a few months.
In the melees, the team tries to work together by playing off each other's strengths.
"The best way I could help my team is by grabbing someone," Moe said. Then a teammate could come up and hit the restrained opponent. "It is evolving roles through the battles."
Fighters do get hurt. Several fighters had to be helped up following bouts on Saturday, including one injury that stopped a fight completely while a fallen knight was assisted. Many of the fighters were nursing bruises the next day. Despite the pain though, the competitors enjoy the adrenaline rush and the release the fight gives them.
"What we are doing is simulating a life and death struggle," Freeman said. "You have a chance to take out your aggression in a healthy way."
Beyond the adrenaline rush and competition, armored fighting is also a great confidence builder.
"I didn't think I could do it at all," Esherick said. "When I did, my confidence went through the roof."
Armored fighting is open to anyone with the drive and passion to try. Fighters can be anyone, from military to police officers to even people working in IT.
"It is very transformative for a lot of people," Freeman said.
The sport can be very intimidating, but the fighters welcome new people and want to grow the sport.
"We're on the same team," Freeman said. "We are always looking to bring more people to the sport."
Moe is hoping the War in the North will grow interest in the sport. He would like to start a new team in St. Cloud, which would make it easier for people in west central Minnesota to take part. Anyone who is interested can Facebook message Moe or the Twin Cities Wyverns.
"We want to share this uniquely awesome sport," said Moe, who isn't worried about starting a new team will cause friction with the Wyverns. "We're going to do this as a family. It is going to be fun for us."