A Mixture of Madness, Book II of The Bow - By Levkoff, Andrew


55 – 54 BCE - Winter, On the March

Year of the consulship of

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives

“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.”

A voice in the dark said, “The proper sacrifices were made to Neptune and Tempestates. The legion’s augur confirmed our crossing at that inopportune time has been absolved. There’s an end to it.”

“There’s an end to it, all right,” Betto groused. “If by ‘it’ you mean us.” He joined the others and started dressing. At least his pre-dawn nerves, Malchus told him cheerfully, would enable them to beat the morning rush to the latrine.


“This is not the way. We’re in the wrong