Only on the fourth day did we trap them, near the fell-side where my grandfather told me the Enemy had fallen long ago.
They were nearer now. We could hear their snarls and shouts in the heavy air. They sounded more like animals in pain than men. In the sharp shafts of seldom-sunlight, we could see their painted faces, stretched and twisted in anger and rage.
Their horsemen goaded us, spears stretching in the fierce wind towards our braced shields. Their children and young-bloods darted in the heather, snapping darts from strange bows, their javelins darkening the sky.
But we were wary of them and we stared back, silent, with hooded eyes, waiting for the command to advance. When the golden horn of Commodus sounded, we shouted three times, and marched over the twisted bracken, heather and stones. Their blue and grey streaked faces looked stunned as we speared them in their wilderness haunts, casting them before us. A rainstorm drew a veil over their slaughter. Blood ran down my spear onto my hand, slick and dark, washing my fear away.
Yet even as we slew their yesterday’s-children, the painted warband shrieked and wailed from the far fell-side. Their advance was as fast as a heath-fire in mid-summer, and they fell on our shields with a force I have never known.
From the edge of my eye we saw their horsemen ride down Rhys and Maddoc, and we became afraid. Some of us ran to Lord Gaius’ shieldwall, braced and hard against the storm and the Enemy. I saw the rest of my brothers fall or be devoured in the battle-shriek of a hundred painted hands and strange swords.
Lord Gaius pressed us forward, reminding us that it was our lands pillaged by the painted people, our cattle stolen, our homes burnt. The hatred rekindled, and we shouted harder as we chased them.
They seemed to encircle us now, the rain stabbing into my face as I turned to watch them, ghosts in tartan, grey and blue against the orange gorse, Enemies of my blood. But the shieldwall pressed me on, my new-brothers driven forward by the sight of our prey – and our cattle.
I saw Maelgwyn run with his hearth-men up the far hill-side, shields on their backs, to head off the Enemy intent on escape.
And then, in an instant, they were upon us. I braced my shield, shouted my Father’s name, and stabbed at the daemons’ faces before me. My arm and cheek were wounded, sharp scars but with deeper pain lingering, and the blood drained my strength from me. I was not alone, and we fell back, the field littered with our Fallen as we closed our shieldwall up.
In the distance on the hillside, I saw Maelgwyn still fighting, a blur of scarlet under a blanket of blue, green and grey hatred. Our cattle were gone. As the rain fell I felt cold, and swore revenge.
So ends the most recent “Dux Britanniarum” playtest using Picts against Romano British forces north of The Wall. It was a tough game, and as the British player I made quite a few mistakes – all the playtesters felt that the Picts are going to be tough opponents, vicious in close combat but brittle enough to break if you can stand against them long enough.
My childhood memories of reading (and re-reading) Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Eagle of the Ninth”, the evocative northern wilderness on the OS maps of Roman Britain, the stunning beauty of Scotland (captured above in Eddie John's excellent photography) and the mystery of the Picts, the “Last of the Free”, make an intoxicating blend for a wargamer. Enough for me to have already ordered my own Pictish warband for “Dux Britanniarum”. So, hopefully there’ll be more of the Painted Enemy here before too long!