CHAPTER 1 – Memory Stew
John slurped from the spoonful of tilapia barley stew, a special recipe he’d picked up on an unexpected adventure through ancient Egypt. That epic journey had only been a month ago, after fourth grade ended and before they’d moved from Colorado to Maryland, but it was fading like a distant memory. John didn’t want to forget, so he made the stew as often as his family could stomach. In part to remind his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, too.
“Aren’t you getting sick of this same soup?” Sarah rolled her eyes, twirling her spoon in the chunky broth.
They’d bonded while dodging cobras and scorpions and figuring out the identity of a tomb robber together, not to mention traveling through time, but Sarah had changed since then, since the move. She’d been acting . . . different.
She’d rescued him from a crocodile, for goodness’ sake! But lately, when John tried to play with his older sister, she didn’t want anything to do with him. Well, most of the time, anyway. Thinking about it now, John’s head slumped toward the steaming stew. The pendant of the eye of Ra on a leather strip around his neck, a gift from their ancient Egyptian friend, swung away from his blue Denver Nuggets T-shirt and clattered against the ceramic bowl. John stared at the jade amulet—shaped like an eye with a brow and a line that flowed down into a curlicue end, another line pointing straight down with a knifelike edge—before he tucked it under his collar while glancing at Sarah.
She held his gaze for a moment and John straightened his back. The side of his mouth turned up in a half smile, revealing the lone dimple in his right cheek amid freckle constellations.
“I’m gonna go ride my bike,” Sarah grumbled, standing up and dropping her napkin on the table.
“Can I come?” John asked.
“No.” She didn’t look him in the eye. Then she turned to her parents and jabbed, “Or if we had a dog, maybe I could take it for a walk.”
John wanted a puppy too, but Sarah really wanted one and never hesitated at throwing a reminder to her parents.
“Ya gotta eat your dinner.” Dad shook both hands, pleading. He was big on them getting their protein.
“At least clear your place,” Mom added. Dad tilted his head at Mom, looking disappointed she was letting Sarah get away without finishing her meal.
Sarah sighed loudly and picked up her bowl. After it had been rinsed and lodged in the dishwasher, Dad thanked her.
“I only did it cuz Mom forced me,” she said.
Dad turned to Mom. “Thanks, honey, for forcing Sarah to do her dish like a respectable human being.”
Mom grinned a broad sarcastic smile. “You’re welcome, honey. It was my pleasure.”
“Ughhh!” Sarah squeaked, her fists at the end of stiff arms as she headed for the back door to the garage. She’d been doing that more often lately too—the high-pitched squeal and a stomp-away.
John watched his parents.
Dad shrugged in exasperation.
Mom’s eyebrows raised as she inhaled through her nose. Then she exhaled in a relax-me way and turned her attention to John, smiling. “What’d you do this afternoon?”
John took a mouthful of the tilapia fish and shrugged like his dad. “Played some hoops with Roman.”
Playing with his best friend in Colorado over FaceTime with a small foam ball and a back-of-the-door hoop wasn’t nearly the same as playing together at school on a real court. The fact that he was getting tired of playing over a video call made his heart ache. His conversations with Roman on the phone were already growing shorter. Pretty soon they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. At least he still had Sarah. Sort of.
“Oh!” Mom’s sudden exclamation roused him from his thoughts.
“Roman. That reminds me . . .” Mom looked back at the kitchen counter. She stood and rummaged through some mail, pulling out a glossy flyer. She held it up. On the front was the painting of a bare-chested gladiator with a bright bronze helmet, short sword held high over his head, his sandaled foot on a vanquished opponent lying in the dirt, an arena full of people cheering all around.
“There’s a temporary exhibition on the ancient Roman Empire, specifically the frontier region in central Europe, at the natural history museum in DC. We could all take the train in together and check it out this weekend.” Mom turned the flyer over and slapped it onto the dining table.
John leaned in and saw pictures of a bright ancient Roman coin engraved with the bust of an emperor named Constantius, and the statue of a wolf standing while two human babies suckled from below—that image made John giggle.
“Let’s do it. Gladiators—what a mind-boggling thing to think about,” Dad said, ticking his head back and forth. “Some fought as punishment for a crime or were prisoners of war. But some?” Dad paused, leaning in. “Were volunteers. Can you imagine how bad your life had to be to volunteer to kill or be killed in front of a crowd for money? To put your life on the line for entertainment?”
“Like Muhammad Ali?” John asked. He’d done a report last year on the Greatest. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Mom gave a nod like He has a point.
“Much more dangerous with swords and spears,” Dad said. “Or against lions.”
The back door opened and Sarah came in.
“That’s terrible,” Mom said. “I can’t fathom how that behavior was acceptable.”
“What?” Sarah sneered, her head cocked to the side. “Are you talking about me?”
“No, sweetheart.” Dad chuckled. He stood and moved toward Sarah with his arms out for a hug. “No bike ride? Come here.”
“I have a flat.”
Sarah let Dad approach, but at the last minute she ducked out of the way so his arms caught only air. She smiled at the evasive move.
Dad looked at John and pointed to Sarah. “I think she’d do okay in the gladiator ring.”
John snorted. He looked down into an empty bowl. “Wanna play upstairs, Sarah?”
“No.” Though curt, her answer wasn’t mean. John still deflated a little, though.
“I’ll play, kiddo.” Dad put his hand up to John’s head but caught himself from ruffling through his hair. John didn’t really like that anymore.
After a second of thought, John brightened up. “Wanna wrestle?”
Dad put his hand to his lower back and stretched. “Oy. I’m so old and you’re so big now,” he said with a smile. “But okay. After I wash the dishes.”
“Yesss.” John pumped his arm.
“Training for the gladiator games?” Mom asked.
“Why are you guys talking about gladiators?” Sarah asked from the couch in the nearby room. As much as she tried to pull away, her curiosity couldn’t keep her far. It wasn’t that Sarah was unhappy, she just wanted . . . John didn’t know what she wanted. Well, besides a puppy, there was something else, was about the best way he could describe it.
“Dad and I want to take you to DC to learn about the ancient Roman frontier this weekend,” Mom said, searching the cupboard for a plastic container.
John could tell by Sarah’s perked head that she was interested. But her response didn’t match.
“Seriously?” Sarah whined. Her vocabulary lately consisted of a lot of “seriously?” John couldn’t figure her out. She obviously wanted to go, so why pretend not to?
“It’ll be cool,” John said half-heartedly. He really did think it would be neat, but he didn’t want to commit to his opinion in case Sarah didn’t think so too.
“Do I have to?” she asked. “Can I just stay home? By myself?”
John could tell she was practically holding her breath waiting for the answer. She’d been wanting to do this sort of thing more lately too—go places by herself, stay home by herself, whatever . . . by herself.
Mom set the leftover container on the counter next to the soup pot, one hand on her hip, and leveled her eyes at Sarah. She smiled, close lipped. “We’re going as a family and we want you with us.”
“Fine. If you’re forcing me to.”
“Sarah, I asked Dad if he’d wrestle.” John beamed.
Sarah understood. “He said yes?”
“Let’s talk strategy.” She bounded up the stairs, John close on her heels like a new pup.
CHAPTER 2 – A Blast from the Past
Arriving at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History a good thirty minutes before it opened, Sarah groaned. Their family was over-punctual like that. Even when attending friends’ parties where it was assumed you’d arrive a little late, and even though they’d plan for a fashionably late arrival, they’d still show up before everyone else and help the hosts prepare.
The sun had already warmed the air around the National Mall. Sarah scuffled along in her Vans, ripped jean shorts, and green Tony Hawk T-shirt—which contrasted nicely with her flaming red hair.
Mid-summer in DC meant it’d be another hot day. Sarah squinted and turned her face into the sun. She thought of Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god, traversing the sky. As the rays dappled her cheeks, she was reminded of the Aten, the sun disk that reached out and touched all things. And, in a final violent flash of memory that made her shudder, she saw the tumble of rocks that slid down the mountain and half buried the man with the green eyes: Aten, the tomb robber who had been using the time portal to ferry artifacts from his ancient era to her modern one in exchange for riches. Despite the heat of the sun’s rays on her fine skin, Sarah shivered and opened her eyes, pushing the horrible recollection of the landslide from her mind. Aten had been nearly covered but taken away by the police alive.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she muttered to herself. She looked toward John walking beside their mom, holding her hand. His words from that place echoed as if from the bottom of a deep well. “It’s all your fault!”
Sarah scowled and shoved her hands into the small pockets of her shorts.
The family meandered toward the nearby butterfly pollinator garden, waiting for the doors to the world-famous museum to open.
The grass and trees had taken a beating the last few weeks with little rain and lots of sun. Each blade bent over as if succumbing to another lashing from the rays. The leaves hung lethargically from their branches, dangling limp like a dog’s tongue.
Mom inhaled a melodramatic whiff of a big purple flower with petals splayed out the size of a grapefruit. “Mmm, don’t they smell wonderful?” Her lazy smile made her appear as if she’d just awoken from a cozy dream, or like Alice coming out of Wonderland.
Dad leaned over and stuck his nose up to the petals. “Ah!” he screamed. “Bee!”
He yanked his head back at the same time he pushed the stem away. Needle-sharp thorns lined the branches.
“Yowww!” Dad shook his hand, staring at it as if that would make it better or he couldn’t believe what had happened. The bee must have been rattled by the commotion and Dad started swatting with his other hand. Both hands twitching, his head jolting back and forth in spasms, his hair flinging through the air—Sarah couldn’t help but giggle.
As soon as she let the chuckle escape her lips, though, Dad froze in his silly posture and grinned at her. “Got ya.” He pointed at Sarah and his smile beamed wide enough to show his teeth.
Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Ugh, whatever.” But she was still smiling. Her dad could be such a royal goofball. There was a time she would have joined in happily, but lately she didn’t feel like being a goofball as often.
John bounced around Dad like he was riding an imaginary horse, making some weird noise and goggling with his tongue out of his mouth, flapping his head around like Dad had only a moment before, poking fun at him. John was such an easy audience for Dad’s antics. Such a sucker for the silly stuff.
“So there was no bee?” Mom asked, her hands held to her chest, her eyes darting around as if a giant alien bee named Bubba was going to pounce on her at any minute.
That gave Dad a laugh. “No bee, honey.” He snorted at his own unintentional joke. “No bee. Honey. Get it?”
Mom groaned. “Clever.”
“At least he didn’t joke it was a snake,” John said.
Mom glared at him. “Don’t you even . . .”
John gave a widemouthed goofy laugh and went galloping into a new row. Sarah admired some flowers with creamy-white petals flaring out from bulbous yellow cores laden with rich pollen like a solar corona.
Her parents turned to follow John, leaving Sarah facing the opposite direction. As she spun to join them, out of the corner of her eye she noticed a figure in the shadow near a white alabaster column.
Staring at her?
She did a quick double take and saw the man wore a full-length Egyptian robe with a covering for his head. And he was definitely staring in her direction.
Her parents suddenly seemed a little too far away, so Sarah quickened her pace. She glanced back over her shoulder to catch another glimpse of the man, but he was gone.
Inside the museum, Sarah played it cool. At first, she mostly kept an eye out for other kids her age—especially twelve-year-old boys—but this ancient history stuff actually interested her very much. Not that she’d let anyone know that.
“Eww,” she let slip, reading about ancient Roman public bathrooms and the sea sponge on a stick. People would use it to wipe, then dunk it in a bucket of plain or salt water for the next person to use. Ancient TP.
Sarah stuck out her tongue. “Gross.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught John approaching, so she quickly put her face back to neutral and turned the other direction. The artist’s rendering now in front of her was of a boy—probably a little older than her—with icy-blue eyes and long hair the color of a drying carrot, light orange, tied in a knot at one side of his head. Sarah had never seen that style of hairdo before, and for a millisecond she imagined it in her own red hair.
“Wonder what happened to his hand,” John said, now standing beside her.
The comment tugged at Sarah’s curiosity, so she looked down past the boy’s bare chest at his right arm. Sure enough, there was only a stump. Secured to his right forearm with tight leather straps, a dull shield. In his left hand, a squat short sword. He wore thick woolen pants and what looked like animal-fur boots. The way he stood on the lichen-covered rock in the picture, with one foot in front of the other, gave him a regal appearance. Sarah’s gaze was drawn again to his face, to his pale blue eyes.
“Pretty mountains,” John said, obviously trying to get her to say something. She hadn’t even noticed the towering peaks in the background of the picture until he pointed them out. John spoke again, reading the caption underneath the painting: “Crocus. A leader of the Germanic people called the Alem—Annie—”
“Al-ah-ma-nee,” Sarah said. “Alemanni.”
“Alemanni,” John repeated. “Who led an uprising against the Roman Empire in the late third century and was responsible for a great deal of destruction throughout Gah—uuu—l.”
“Like ‘ball,’ but ‘Gaul,’” Sarah helped.
John looked sidelong at her. “Thanks.”
They stood in silence for a moment. Sarah swore the boy in the painting was looking at her. Was that subtle smirk there before?
“Crocus,” John continued reading, “ended up siding with the emperor Con—stan—tee—us—”
“Con-stan-shus.” Sarah shifted her weight.
“Constantius,” John said.
Sarah rolled her eyes, tired of the lessons. She crossed her arms. Her parents were in the hall watching a video at a kiosk. She didn’t not want to be around her little brother, but nor did she want to be around him either. Yes, it was very confusing.
John kept reading out loud, but Sarah started humming to herself and sidled away without him noticing.
CHAPTER 3 – Preparing for the Trip
John realized right away that Sarah was leaving, but he chose to ignore her departure and kept reading about Crocus. Interestingly, though originally an enemy of Rome, Crocus influenced the dying Roman emperor Constantius to choose his own son Constantine as the next ruler in 306 CE and—okay, boring. John wanted to read more about the uprising and the “great deal of destruction.” And how had the boy lost his hand?
The twinkle of a gold coin caught John’s eye. An amateur coin enthusiast, he already held quite a collection of about a hundred coins, including buffalo nickels, wheat pennies, and a liberty dime from 1916. This gold coin in the glass display case had the bust of the emperor Constantius engraved into it with the Latin redditor lucis aeternae, which the placard said meant “restorer of the eternal light.”
John didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded cool.
He spun around, eager to tell his sister about the find. Sarah turned a corner and disappeared. John was about to follow but shot a look back to his parents, who were still engaged in their video. Following Sarah meant he’d be out of sight from their parents, and John knew that was not a wise choice in a busy public place like this. Still, his urge to be with his sister won out and he followed her.
In a side room designed for kids hung racks of costumes. Sarah had slipped on a white sleeveless dress under a sign that said “Stola” and was picking through a pile of shawls labeled “Palla.”
On the far wall, John’s eye caught the swords, shields, spears, three-pronged pitchforks called tridents, and other weapons and armor of the gladiators. He ran over to a poster showing the various types of fighters and read how each type of gladiator was equipped with a specific set of gear and typically pitted against a specific kind of opponent.
“Wow,” he muttered. He never knew such an elaborate system of warrior classes existed for those who fought in the arena.
One particular group caught his attention: The venatores. Not technically considered gladiators because they didn’t fight humans, the venatores were hunters who battled with animals—lions, bears, tigers, elephants, crocodiles . . . John cringed, remembering the dangerous waters of the Nile and the crocodile that had hunted him!
He contemplated whether he’d rather fight an animal like a lion or a crocodile in the ring, or another human. He grimaced at either choice.
Sarah was puzzling with the palla—a long length of fabric—trying to follow the directions to wrap it around her body.
John pulled a tunic made of thick wool over his head. It sort of reminded him of the one he’d worn in ancient Egypt—not very different, actually, but thicker. He grabbed a leather belt upon which hung a scabbard for his short sword. A table with various helmets and headgear offered many choices, and John considered the crown with radiating golden spikes like the rays of the sun. It said this was the type of crown some Roman emperors wore to honor Sol Invictus—the “Unconquered Sun,” the official sun god and one to whom the soldiers prayed for victory on the battlefield.
“Sun god,” John mumbled, subconsciously fingering the eye of Ra pendant under his tunic—Ra being the ancient Egyptian sun god.
“What d’you think?” Sarah turned around in the white stola dress and aquamarine palla hanging over her shoulders. She held a short stubby staff with an eagle at the top—a scepter.
John chuckled. He handed Sarah the Sol Invictus crown. “Put this on and you’ll look like the Statue of Liberty.”
She must have liked the crown’s gold bling because she snatched it out of his hand and secured it on her head, holding her neck high with her chin cocked to the side. A floodlight from above shone down on her and glinted off the Sol Invictus crown.
“Wow,” John muttered.
“Bow, slave,” she said.
Fitting, John thought, and turned back to the table of helmets. He selected a Roman legionary model made of bronze and with a broad plate at the back to protect him from a sword attack to the neck, two strips of steel arcing down over his cheeks.
The round wooden shield painted in red for the god of war, Mars, with a yellow lightning bolt fitted nicely on his arm. The weight of it sent an electric thrill. Fully outfitted in helmet, shield, and sword, his protective armor emboldened him.
John turned to Sarah, weapon raised, ready for the fight.
Sarah struck a regal pose, scanning John up and down. “I commanded you to bow, slave,” she teased.
John scowled and braced himself in an offensive stance, his sword poking out from the top of his shield. “I fight for my freedom!”
“Ooh, fierce,” Sarah teased some more, but with a grin.
John lunged at her, ready to slay his opponent. Sarah swung the scepter and parried his thrust, then positioned herself for a duel, one hand behind her back.
As John was about to attack again, a figure suddenly appeared from the shadows behind Sarah. It startled John and knocked him out of focus, but he regained his composure and threw his shield up to fend off Sarah’s crashing blow. When he lowered his shield, he saw the figure move toward them—a man dressed in a full-length robe and a hood hiding his face. This distracted John further, but he knew he couldn’t let Sarah win this battle to the death.
As he swung his sword, the stranger flipped his hood off and stared at John.
Okay, that was unnerving. John couldn’t help but return the man’s stare and—
Could it be? Was that—? No, no, it can’t be.
John tried to voice a warning to his sister, but his brain had temporarily shut down from the complete surprise.
Apparently the shock on his face conveyed the message because Sarah turned toward the man and gasped.