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Audition Script:
A Mixture of Madness, Book II of The Bow of Heaven, © Andrew Levkoff 2012

SCENE: A tent outside Antioch in Roman Syria. Marcus Crassus has marched his army from Rome in order to invade neighboring Parthia. These are the opening pages of the novel.

“Bona Dea! What was that?!” Legionary Flavius Betto sat up, shoving Drusus Malchus awake. Betto, whose tent-mates called him Muris, the mouse, set to work upon a hangnail as if he were breaking his fast.

“It was a scream,” Malchus said, yawning and stretching. “You’re a soldier. We’re at war. You’ll hear lots of screaming. Go back to sleep.” The four other soldiers in the tent agreed with short, vehement curses. The Celt threw a bronze mess cup at Betto but hit Malchus. Betto was lucky the two remaining members of their contubernium, the brothers Broccus, were on guard duty.

Malchus casually tossed the cup back toward its owner. He was philosophical about these things. People were often throwing things at Betto, and his friend Malchus, being so much the greater target, took his share of unintentional abuse. He was the only man in his century who could not wear standard issue. It would be unfair to call him fat, and more unkind than unwise. Hostus Broccus had once said that if they were ever shipwrecked together, they could make a raft of his body and a sail from his tunic. Hearing this, Tarautus Broccus had pressed a finger to one broad nostril, leaned over and emptied the other with a sharp exhale. Broccus had wiped his face on his tunic, then said he’d rather swim for it than lie on Malchus’ naked chest. Drusus had laughed along with everyone else.

“It wasn’t a scream,” Betto argued. “It sounded more like…like the moaning of my Aunt Iunia.”

“You told me she died from eating bad mullet year before last.”

“My point exactly.” Betto began to reach for the tent flap, then thought better of it.

“It was a scream,” Malchus muttered, knowing this was an argument he would not win. He pulled his brown wool sagum all the way up over his head, wondering if he could fall back asleep before the next sentence was uttered.

“How could it be a scream?” Betto asked the woolen lump that was his best friend. “Have you looked outside? We’re in Roman Syria, not Ctesiphon. The fighting hasn’t started yet.”

“It will if you don’t shut up!” said the Etruscan.

“That’s it. I’m wide awake now,” Malchus grumbled. He threw off his cloak, leaned forward and peered through the tent flap. “The blessed cornu will blow within the hour anyway.”

“It’s another omen, I know it,” warned Betto, peering over Malchus’ shoulder.

“Oh, here we go again,” said someone else.

“You think I’m joking?” Betto said. “Tell me, how did Malchus and I come to join you fine fellows? I’ll tell you how.” Someone muttered “again,” but Betto plowed ahead. “Because the six other legionaries we shipped out with drowned, that’s how! Remember the men who stood on the rostra with us in Brundisium? Well now they’re DEAD!”

“And here you are in the first century of the first cohort of Legion I Columba,” said the Celt, throwing his tunic over his head.

The Etruscan muttered, “Columba. Why name an army after a bird of peace? The Dove Army—about as threatening as a kiss on the cheek.”

“Ever have 30,000 doves shit on you?” Malchus asked.

The Celt continued unperturbed, “Under whose standard march the best legionaries Marcus Crassus’ sesterces can buy. So I suggest you start acting like it.”

“It’s been almost five months, Flavius,” Malchus said. “You need to let it go. You’re driving everyone crazy.”

“You don’t understand,” Betto persisted. “Thousands of men drowned. I don’t suppose you call that a good omen, do you?”

“Think on it, my superstitious friend,” Malchus said, “there is a reason the gods gave you a mouth that closes and ears that don’t.” This got a laugh from the others, who had now resigned themselves to being well awake by the time Diana’s Hymn sounded.

“Scoff if you want,” Betto said. “But between the tribune’s curse and the ill wind that took our brothers, I’d say someone in the command tent isn’t praying hard enough.”

SCENE: A hill at the northern gate to the city of Antioch. Alexander has been tried for treason, found guilty and is about to be crucified. His wife, Livia, comes to say her farewells. This scene is part of the climax of the novel.

“That’s it. We’re not waiting any longer,” the optio said, the stiff arc of horsehair on his helmet brushing the air as he shook his head. “Bind his hands.”

“Due respect, sir,” Malchus said, “in these foreign parts, how can we be sure if it’s two hours till sunset? Maybe there’s three left. Who can say?”

“I can say,” said the optio. “And I’m saying it now. Malchus, don’t make this any harder than it already is. Just do your job.”

“Sir.” Malchus left the road and walked back up to where I lay. He shook his head and bent to his task.

Betto was already crying. “Furina’s feces, Alexander.”

“I’m glad it’s you, Flavius,” I told him. “I’d rather it be you than a stranger. I am sorry for the distress this is causing you.”

“No. It has to be us. We’ll see you off right.”

“Don’t stretch his arm out too far,” Malchus called from the other side. He smeared his nose across his forearm. “Bind it wide, but not too tight. ”

“Stop telling me how to do this,” Betto yelled across my prone, almost naked body. “Cerberus’ four balls,” he muttered, “you’d think I’d never done this before.”

“Cerberus only has two balls,” Malchus said.

“So you keep telling me.” Betto paused to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. “Why don’t you go down there, bring ‘em back and prove it to me?”

“Because,” I interrupted, “even if Malchus could somehow demonstrate that the testicles were taken from the beast, it would still only prove the dog has two.”

“Oh,” Betto sniffed, “we’ve done this one before, have we?”

“Once or twice,” I said. “You’d accuse him of deliberately leaving the other two behind.”

•••

I was on the cross, on the ground, my head aligned up the gentle slope of the hill, my feet pointing down toward the base of the fifteen-foot post that rested at the edge of the road into Antioch. Betto was tying my right wrist to the beam already notched and tied to the vertical post. If I let my bare legs fall on either side of the rough-hewn wood, I could feel grass and earth on my calves and the heels of my feet. Above me, the arbutus swayed, a shifting canopy of shade. The trees’ smooth orange bark was peeling back like parchment, exposing next year’s pale green arms. Behind my head, further up the hill, the Etruscan from my friends’ contubernium was digging the four-foot hole for the post. Their remaining tent-mates were on the road, joined by another dozen soldiers holding back the crowd. Cavalrymen were stationed at either end to make sure no one flanked the human barrier.

“Can you push off from the foot rest easy enough?” Malchus asked. “On your toes, your legs should be able to take most of the weight off your arms.”

“That arrow wound in his right thigh’s going to make itself known.”

“Shut up, Flavius,” Malchus said.

“It hardly ever gives me any trouble,” I said helpfully.

“It will, lad. Sooner or later.”

Malchus glared at his friend, an exchange I had looked upon with fondness countless times over the course of our friendship.

“Oh. Sorry,” Betto said. “Let’s not tie his legs; he’ll just get rope burn when he pushes himself up to get a breath.”

“Must you, Flavius? I am barely managing my terror as it is.”

“Merda! Curse me for an ignorant ass!”

“Done,” I said, trying and failing to make him smile.

Malchus said, “No curse required.”

“Where is Livia?” I asked. “She is coming, isn’t she?”

“She’ll be here,” Malchus said, casting a worried look at Betto. “Don’t worry. We won’t hoist you up till she has a chance to, you know, say goodbye.” He glanced behind him down the hill. I craned my neck and saw the officer pacing on the empty road between his men and the Antiochenes who had gathered to witness the execution.

“Could I have some water, please?”

Betto tilted my head up and put his flask to my lips. When he did, I could see the city, a bit of the river, even the Regia. I wondered what Crassus was doing at this moment. Was he standing on a balcony, looking this way? Or now that I was free of him, had he already put me out of his mind? As Betto was about to let my head back down, I saw a flash of red hair in the crowd. “Wait! I think I see her!”

“Sir!” Malchus shouted to the optio. “There she is! The medicus.”

The officer walked briskly up to his men. “Make a path for that woman! Let her through!”

Betto found a large, smooth stone and placed it gently under my head. Then he and the rest of the legionaries moved off down the hill. Betto and Malchus touched Livia’s shoulders lightly as they passed. She was wearing her belted healer’s tunic, stained from work. I wondered if she had been the one to treat Curio’s wounds. Cradled in her arms was a small child. In two days, Felix would be a year old.

She knelt in the space made where the two pieces of wood were joined. “Here is your son,” she said. She put Felix down in the tight triangle of ground between us. He giggled and picked at the bark on the unplaned side of the beam. I spoke to him softly and finally got his attention. He put both hands on my face, squeezed my cheeks and laughed. I smiled, my mouth and chest tight. Something I would not be able to control began to well up inside me. Thankfully, at that moment he turned, held his arms in the air and Livia picked him up.

“He has your looks,” I said.

“He’ll most likely have my temper as well.”

“One of your finest features. That and your whistling. How is Hanno?”

“Oblivious. Soon he’ll be destroyed, like the rest of us.”

“You’ll see to him, though.”

“He was surviving before he met you. I expect he’ll do as well when you’ve gone.” She inhaled deeply and blew the air out slowly. “I came out here with half a hundred questions to which I already knew the answers. There’s no point to any of it, is there?” Her voice constricted with her breathing. “You’ve killed yourself, Andros. And murdered me.”

“I’m hoping you’ll forgive me.”

“No. I never shall.”

“I know. I understand.”

“I understand, too, I do. I know why you did what you did. But you had no right.”

“Little fox, I had no choice.”

“You always have a choice, you stupid man! Who gave you the right to act as one? You were not one. We were the three of us. You had no right.” Her voice trailed off, but she refused to allow any tears to fall.

“What if you were given the chance, Livia, to do something you knew was just and good? Something that would make right at least a little of the wrong.”

“I would never leave you; I would never leave our son.”

“Even if it meant your freedom?”

“Death is not freedom, Alexandros. It’s just death.”

Livia put Felix down on the ground beyond the beam above my right arm. He sat, crossing his chubby legs, happily bubbling to himself as the patch of ground before him became a new unexplored universe. She wasn’t tired of holding him. She wanted her hands free.

“I swear to the ancient gods,” she said, unleashing the storm that had to come, “you are so ignorant I could kill you myself.” On the last word she pounded my chest with her fists. “Look at you! Where is your philosophy now? What good can come of this, tell me that. You are a selfish, thoughtless man. How could you do this to yourself? I really, really want to hate you, Andros, truly I do.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“Be quiet! So what if you did the right thing? How will the world change except that it will lose a little of its brightness when you have gone? For pity’s sake, Andros, even the soldiers who bind you cry for you. Gods, you are the most distressing of idiots! Did you never stop to consider that there are things you could have done while alive, but absolutely nothing you can do now, except die?”

“You make a valid point.”

Livia made a noise deep in her throat. “You are stupefying, you and your logic. Now we both will suffer, but you are so selfish, you do not even see that I will suffer for a lifetime longer than you. Take that with you on your journey.”

“I had to try.”

“No, Alexandros, you really did not. But you are a man of principle, aren’t you? A man of ideals. And it is clear that this absurd gesture of yours means more to you than life, more to you than me, or your son, or our life together.” Livia’s hands went to her face. When she removed them, they were wet with angry tears. “I swore I wouldn’t do this.”

There was no time. I could see the officer motioning to Malchus. “Will you kiss me?” I asked.

“I won’t stay to watch this. I won’t.”

“Of course. You must leave. It will be agony to watch you go.”

“Listen to me.” She leaned in close. “These two tiny vials are glass, filled with a concentrate of opium. When I leave I will put one between each cheek and gum. When you are ready, bite down hard on the vials. It’s not enough to kill you, but you’ll be unconscious when…it happens.”

“I’m afraid, Livia.”

She put her arms around my neck. She was suddenly my Livia again, and now I was losing her. “What will I do tomorrow,” she said, kissing my cheeks and eyelids, “when I wake and remember that you are no longer in the world?”

“Carry the memory of us with you. I will carry the scent of your hair with me.”

“Don’t be afraid to tell me. I won’t be angry. I need to hear it. Please.”

“Thank you,” I said, weeping. “I didn’t think you wanted me to say it. Livia, how I have loved you. When Sulla’s archer shot me all those years ago and I almost died, you were the first sight that met my eyes at my rebirth. When I close them at the end, my last thought will be of you.”

“I wanted so much more for us.”

“Malchus!” the optio called.

From the road, I heard my friend ask, “Can he not be untied so they may have one final embrace?”

“Look at the sun. We’ll be lucky if we’re all not whipped for this.”

Livia held my face in her hands and kissed my lips, a fleeting eternity of touch that would never come again. “If I did not have our child,” she said, pulling away from me, “I would follow you.”

“Then I must hope that after I am judged, after you have lived your life, I may find you on the fields of Elysium.”

She laughed as she cried. “And all this time I thought you were one of the most intelligent men I had ever known. Goodbye, my sweet pelargós.”

“Goodbye, love.”

Livia slipped the thin vials into my mouth, took Felix into her arms, rose and walked down the hill.