This story is set in the late Roman Republic but all characters and events are fictional, any resemblance to actual historical events or persons is coincidence.
The wails of women soared and echoed above the deep beating of the drums. Lamenting songs were sung, creating a cacophony of sound that accompanied the funeral procession. Below it all, one could hear muffled shouts coming from the covered litter where the body was carried.
Shadows shrouded the funeral procession as they reached the tomb even as the moon cast a pallid glow across the rest of the Campus Sceleratus. Manius Lartius Galeo, the Pontifex Maximus, headed towards the edge of the tomb. As he began his prayers, the bearers set the litter down.
The Executioner took out a small, female body wrapped in white. She struggled but her legs and torso were held firmly. Her dark hair which had been washed and brushed was dishevelled from her thrashing, her eyes rolled wildly and seemingly glowed red in the reflection of the torches.
The Pontifex ignored her struggles and kept up his prayers. Even when she somehow bit through the cloth around her mouth and started shouting her innocence, he ignored her.
The Executioner carried her down the ladder, placed her on the couch and then lit the lamp on the table. This small room, soon to be hidden in the bowels of the earth, would forever be her last resting place. Hopefully, her sins would rest alongside her.
Once the Executioner left the tomb the first clumps of dirt were thrown down and she fell silent. She seemed mad to Manius then, as she snarled up at them all, saliva dripping from her mouth in her ferocity. A wind blew around them, rustling cloth and a musician’s bells.
As Manius finished his prayers her voice rose as if coming from the depths of Tartarus to echo around them.
‘I curse you all… I curse you to suffer in the name of Vesta! May she decline you the blessings of her hearth. May all who wronged me watch as your House falls around you from pestilence and ill fortune. I will not rest until all of you have paid!’
Manius closed his eyes. He did not know that her curses held any weight considering her position had been stripped from her but he still felt chilled.
She cursed until her voice was hoarse and even then kept going. Dirt continued to pour into the tomb. The thuds of the shovels and grunts of the slaves as they worked provided a rhythmic beat to her wailing. She coughed, her pale fingers desperately moving the dirt away, ultimately failing as she drew her final, rasping breath.
The Vestal Dulcea stirred the flames of the eternal fire higher. Out of the corner of her eye she watched as the new Vestalis Maxima Charis led the daily purification at the altar.
Since the Incident, Dulcea had felt uncomfortable in the presence of the eternal fire. She felt like Abelia’s Curse would strike her at any minute, especially when she was attending the hearth.
Dulcea looked towards the dancing orange flames. As it flickered, lazy wisps of grey smoke rose. She stared, mystified, until suddenly they shot up to three times their size and turned emerald green.
Dulcea yelped as she fell backwards over her stool. As soon she hit the ground her limbs clenched and convulsed until she was shaking so hard the marble ground bruised her. She heard shouts around her and felt hands that attempted to hold her down but could do nothing in response. The shaking seemed to go on forever as shadows slowly crept from the corner of her eyes until she could no longer see, hear or feel anything.
As Manius approached his ancestral home he heard raucous music, laughter and all manner of debaucherous sounds.
He entered the vestibulum and snarled at the first slave he saw, ‘Bring my son to the study, now!’
‘Yes Dominus,’ he responded and left towards the peristylium.
Manius stormed into the study but as he entered the dimly lit room he heard moaning noises. Wrinkling his nose, Manius rapped his fist on the desk.
‘Get out of here!’ he shouted.
Startled, the pair who had been on the ground stumbled out of the room, giggling.
Manius felt his lips curl back as he gingerly sat down at the desk, trying not to imagine the lecherous actions that had been committed around the chair.
After half an hour of waiting, Manius’ son finally entered the study. Surprisingly he did not appear to be drunk, his gait fluid and his eyes clear. Years of habit from the military kept his brown hair cropped short, his face clean shaven and his red tunic neat.
Manius couldn’t quite understand the contradiction between the practical son before him and the reprobate who threw endless feasts.
‘Father, to what do I owe the supreme pleasure of your presence?’ he asked.
‘Lucius, imagine my surprise that the son who won our name glory in the army returned home only to continually slander us by polluting our home with debauchery.’
Lucius merely smiled and sat down on a chair. ‘I served ten years in the army, I think I deserve a little down time.’
Manius leaned backwards and steepled his fingers, ‘It’s been one year since you left the army. It’s high time you applied yourself.’
‘Father,’ Lucius chuckled and shook his head, ‘Get that look off of your face. Just tell me what you want and be done with it.’
‘Has it crossed your mind that in the past week there has been bad omens appearing all over the city? Reports have abounded of black cats, snakes falling from roofs, nightmares, even lightning.’
‘Sure I’ve heard the gossip. Feasts are a good source of information. You’d know that if you weren’t so rigid all the time.’
Just then the piercing squeal of a woman came from the perystilium. Lucius grinned in response.
Manius frowned, ‘I am the Pontifex Maximus. I, unlike some, care about my reputation and the state of our family name.’
‘So you’re here to tell me about some silly superstitions. Most of them are probably false.’ Lucius began absently beating his forefinger on the arm of his chair.
Manius leaned forward, knowing he had caught his son’s interest. ‘You’re right, of course. But I received a report that the third legion dropped their eagle standard while travelling.’
Lucius’ jaw dropped. ‘They dropped the standard? Calamity! Those idiots,’ he spat.
‘There’s more but I’ll tell you it tomorrow morning when you visit me at the Domus Publica,’ said Manius as he stood up. ‘Be there tomorrow morning, accept the task I give you and I’ll continue to turn a blind eye towards your actions.’
As Manius left and walked back home, he thought about the expression on his son’s face. For once Lucius looked as he used to be when he was a child.
He thought that this case would help the scars his son had acquired to disappear. Maybe then, that brittle veneer of an easy going smile and careless attitude would fade away.
But when Manius saw a drunken man stumble over the doorstep to his home, he knew that it was more likely he had just committed his son to a task that would lead only to despair.
Pontius ambled around the atrium, admiring the richly painted murals on the walls. The space was elegantly decorated with leafy plants and marble benches. Although Pontius personally felt it lacked character, it perfectly suited a Pontifex who must maintain high moral standards.
After a short time a slave approached him and said, ‘Verus Pontius? The Dominus will see you now.’
Pontius followed the slave to the study and entered. Sitting before him was the Pontifex Maximus. He was middle aged and looked noble in a white toga, as was to be expected from a patrician.
After Pontius sat in a chair before the desk, the Pontifex spoke, ‘We’re still waiting on my son to join this meeting but I’d like to take the opportunity to talk to you privately.’
Pontius nodded, ‘Alright, what would you like me to do for you?’
The Pontifex smiled, ‘Just like my son, you go straight to the point. As your family’s patron I helped your older brother out of the situation last year with those charges of fraud. I’m collecting that debt now with you.’
‘That is your right but why me and not my brother?’ asked Pontius.
The Pontifex leaned forwards, ‘You have a certain skill set that would be of far more use to me than your brother. I need you to look out for my son while he performs a task for me. He hasn’t been the same since he came back from his service in the military. You may have heard that he is quite the scoundrel.’
‘So this is a babysitting job?’ said Pontius, frowning, ‘I’m sorry but I don’t do that sort of thing.’
‘No, of course not. I want you to assist my son and watch his back. Help distract him from his worries by solving the mystery.’
‘And what mystery is that?’
A voice behind Pontius spoke, causing him to turn around. ‘We are to find whoever set up the Vestalis Maxima Abelia to die and punish them so that her curse will end,’ said the tall, burly man leaning on the door frame. His face with its typical, long patrician nose and strong jaw was serious but there was a gleam of excitement in his eyes and an upwards slant to his lips that worried Pontius.
‘Isn’t that right father?’ asked the man.
‘Yes,’ said the Pontifex. ‘Lucius, meet Verus Pontius. His family is one of my clients. He will be assisting you in this case. Pontius this is my son. Lucius Lartius Galeo.’
Lucius Galeo left the doorway and dropped into the other seat, ‘I don’t really need an assistant, father. I can solve the case by myself.’
‘I know that but this is a serious issue. I want you to have back up and Pontius has connections all over the city from his family’s merchant business. He’ll be of use to you.’
Galeo held up his hand, ‘Fine, fine no need to argue further. I’ll just leave him behind somewhere if he proves to be a burden.’ The Pontifex opened his mouth as if to argue further but Galeo kept talking, ‘You said there were more omens. Tell me about them.’
The Pontifex sighed, ‘I have a copy of the ledger here that you can take with you. My primary concern though is the epileptic fit that Vestal Dulcea had a few days ago before the eternal fire which turned green.’
‘The eternal fire turned green?’ exclaimed Pontius.
The Pontifex nodded, ‘Since then two of the Pontiffs have suffered ill fortune. Gaius Aitilius Pavo is covered in boils while Marcus Furius Pacilus was bitten by a snake and is suffering from its venom.’
‘So the curse has struck full force, targeting those who condemned dear Abelia to death,’ mused Galeo. He rose from his chair. ‘Alright Pontius, gather that ledger and follow me. We’ve got a lot of work to do today.’
‘Uh sure but shouldn’t an augur or praetor take care of this, instead of us?’
Galeo smirked, ‘It’s all right Pontius. My father knew what he was doing when he chose us, now come along.’
The Pontifex nodded, ‘He’s right Pontius. Please, allay your doubts and concentrate on the issue at hand. If this problem isn’t solved soon I’m afraid the glory of Rome will perish beneath destruction.’
Reluctantly Pontius stood, picked up the ledgers and followed Galeo out of the Domus Publica. He felt as if he should have protested more. A plebeian like him, investigating the Vestal scandal? Pontius frowned. That wasn’t truly accurate though, the Pontifex had asked him to help watch over Lucius Galeo, not solve the case.
Once they were standing on the street Pontius turned to Galeo, ‘Where should we start?’
Galeo replied, ‘We know that Abelia’s Curse will affect the people who were involved in her death. We need to talk to the Vestals and the Pontiffs.’
‘Vesta’s temple is right across the street, we should start there.’
They were dwarfed by brightly painted red, blue and gold marble columns which surrounded the perimeter of the building as they ascended the stairs. Once inside the eternal flame, crackling in a simple brick hearth, drew Pontius’ attention. A young Vestal sat on a stool before it. The smoky, astringent scent of incense burnt his nose as he scanned the sparse room. The morning sun illuminated the bronze bowl on the altar and cast striped shadows across the room.
Everything was serene and quiet but there was a strange, tense undertone that pressed like an oppressive weight on Pontius’ shoulders. It felt as if there were a presence in the Temple caught mid breath and out of kilter after being stained by a horrifying event.
‘Excuse me, you’re the Vestal Alexia?’ asked Galeo.
Pontius glanced at him in surprise. He hadn’t realised Galeo knew the Vestals by sight but he shouldn’t be surprised, his father was the Pontifex after all.
Alexia jumped, the soft brown curls around her face flying, ‘Yes. And you are?’
Galeo smiled gently, ‘I am Lucius Lartius Galeo, my dear. I am so sorry, I know the past week must have been terrible for you.’
Alexia’s startled expression drooped into sadness, even a tear appeared in her eyes. ‘You’re the Pontifex’s son. Yes, I’ve been depressed thinking about everything. First Abelia and then what happened to Dulcea. It’s just too much,’ she said her voice going thick with tears.
‘I know it’s hard,’ said Galeo in a soft voice, ‘But can you tell me how Abelia was found to break her vows.’
Alexia nodded, swallowed then said, ‘Vestalis Maxima Charis said she couldn’t get to sleep that night so she came to sit by Abelia in her watch of the eternal flame but when she got here the flame had gone out. She sent slaves to the Pontifex and to find Abelia.’ Alexia paused, taking a deep breath.
With horror in her voice, she continued, ‘They found her naked in her rooms with a man.’
Through an archway to their left an older woman wearing the official stola with the purple bordered head cloth glided into the room. ‘That’s enough now Alexia, return to your duties,’ she said. She approached Pontius and Galeo with a small smile that Pontius thought was faked.
‘Galeo, I wasn’t expecting you. To what do I owe this pleasure?’ the priestess asked.
‘Vestal Charis-’ began Galeo.
‘It’s Vestalis Maxima Charis now,’ interrupted the priestess.
Galeo’s eyebrow raised, ‘Oh I see, I apologise. Congratulations on your promotion.’
‘I’m just sorry it had to happen in such unfortunate circumstances,’ she replied.
‘Yes. My client Pontius and I are here at the behest of my father to gather a report about the recent epileptic fit suffered by Vestal Dulcea. Could I speak to her?’
‘I’m sorry but Vestal Dulcea isn’t receiving guests, she’s much too weak after her experience. You understand, of course,’ responded Charis.
‘Perhaps you could answer my questions then? Is there any chance that Vestal Dulcea was faking the fit?’
Charis gasped and Pontius heard a corresponding cry coming from Vestal Alexia. Pontius was pretty shocked as well. Although it wasn’t unheard of for a person to fake an epileptic fit to take advantage of the bad omen, it was an awfully strong accusation.
‘Of course not!’ exclaimed Alexia. ‘I was at the altar with Charis when it happened. Dulcea was performing her duties by watching the eternal fire when she suddenly fell over and was convulsing. She’s covered in bruises now, there’s just no way she could fake that!’
‘Alexia is correct young man. We are priestesses of Vesta, we are pure and moral women here.’
Galeo just nodded then walked over to the hearth and began examining it intently. Pontius watched Charis spluttering at his rudeness so he said, ‘Please forgive him, he’s just concerned about all these rumours of Abelia’s Curse and the omens that have arisen. I must admit, it would have been a relief if Vestal Dulcea was faking it. Unfortunately that’s obviously not the case and tragic things have now happened to the Pontiffs.’
Charis turned towards Pontius and nodded, her expression going grim, ‘I know, these are just trying times and stress is running high. With Abelia’s betrayal the whole future of Rome is under threat. I just hope this isn’t the Gods punishment. The last time something like this happened, innocent citizens were sacrificed to appease the Gods.’
By the end of the day Pontius was exhausted and confused. Galeo had invited him to have dinner before he went home so now they were reclining in Galeo’s opulent triclinium with a table full of food in front of them.
Pontius sipped on his wine and tried to make sense of Galeo’s methods of investigation. After looking all over the hearth they had gone to the two houses of the ill Pontiffs. At the house of G. Atilius Pavo, Galeo had examined the man’s boils. Then oddly enough and to the household’s chagrin he had searched throughout the kitchen and in the bathroom. He had even demanded they take him to the public bath house where Pavo regularly visited.
He had done similar things at M. Furius Pacilius’ house and had managed to examine the snake that had bitten the Pontiff. But whatever it was that Galeo had been looking for, he hadn’t seemed to find it and the corners of his eyes become more pinched as the day wore on.
‘Are you going to tell me the purpose of what you were doing today?’ Pontius asked, snagging a piece of meat and cheese.
Galeo seemed to snap out of a daze and finally put down the grape he had been holding in his hand for the last five minutes. ‘I was checking to see if the symptoms and omens were really a result of the curse or an elaborate trick. Unfortunately, there were no signs of human interference. There was no trace of sulphur at the Vestal’s hearth and no herbs or poisons at the Pontiffs houses that could cause their symptoms.’
‘Ah, the curse is real then. It’s a little hard to believe that a mortal person could have that much power. It seems more likely that the Gods are angry that the Vestals neglected their duties.’
‘But if that were the case, then the Pontiffs alone would not be being punished, all of Rome would be affected equally. If Abelia were behind this curse, it makes more sense to go after the men who condemned her first.’
Pontius shook his head, ‘But that doesn’t make sense. They couldn’t have been the ones who framed her.’
‘No you’re right. And the curse will continue to wreak havoc until the culprit is found.’
Pontius sighed, ‘I seem to have been no help at all so far. But you seem to have done this before. Was it in the military?’
‘Yes,’ smiled Galeo. ‘At first I was just in charge of the chickens. I’d feed them and if they ate the battle could commence. Every now and then unexplained phenomena would occur. My Legate chose me to solve those mysteries. I got good at it.’
‘If there isn’t anything I can do to help I’d better go home, my wife will worry if I’m not back soon.’
As Pontius reached the atrium, he stopped. The room was pitch black, not a single torch or lamp was lit as it had been when he had entered the house.
From out of the darkness, Pontius saw three shadows moving to surround him. He shouted for help just as they ran towards him. He ducked a burly man’s fists but was slammed sideways as a bald man tackled him. He fell to the ground, bruising his elbow.
The bald man reached back with his arm and Pontius saw a gleam of light reflect off a knife. Pontius raised his right arm and grabbed the man’s wrist. For a moment they struggled until Pontius twisted his attacker’s arm to the side and slammed his hand into the ground. The attacker cried out and rolled off of Pontius.
A short man swung a club at Pontius and he rolled just in time for it to miss his head. He saw the club being swung back up for another blow, so Pontius kicked out with his legs. The other man fell to his knees with a grunt.
Just then a slave entered the atrium with a lamp, followed closely by Galeo holding a gladius and shield. Galeo sped forwards and sliced the bald man’s arm as he attempted to stab forwards with his knife.
As Galeo moved for a finishing blow the burly man grabbed his team mate and fled out to the street. Galeo chased after the short man who had been too slow to rise to his feet and smashed the man’s head with his shield.
The slave raced towards the downed man and quickly tied him up.
Galeo helped Pontius up and said, ‘Well that was interesting. Whoever we talked to today must have become scared we would discover them. You did well defending yourself.’
Pontius rubbed his bruised arm, ‘A merchant has to protect himself and his wares from idiots.’ He nodded towards the man tied up on the ground. ‘Let’s have a look.’
The slave turned the man over and lifted the lamp so that his features could be seen clearly. The man had the swarthy skin and black hair of an Egyptian.
‘A foreigner? Probably hired then. I’ll be able to find out who he and the rest of his group is by tomorrow morning,’ said Pontius.
‘Good.’ Galeo gestured the slave over, ‘Tertius will accompany you and our guest here to your home. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
As Pontius was eating breakfast the next morning, Galeo was brought into the room. Dark circles were under his eyes but he was grinning and looking very satisfied with himself.
‘Pontius, I have great news. Take a look at these,’ he said, dumping two wax tablets on the table.
Pontius picked them up and read them. ‘But these are… How did you get these? No, I don’t want to know…’
‘They certainly make things much clearer, don’t they?’ said Galeo as he sat in a chair.
‘Yes. Also, my men found out who those foreigners were. They came into town a few weeks ago. They’re reputed to do anything as long as they’re paid. Someone remembers them meeting with a well-dressed slave who carried several bags of coins.’
Galeo grinned, ‘Excellent. With this we’ll be able to flush out the perpetrator. I’ve organised a meeting at the Domus Publica at midday.’
‘It’s a bit soon isn’t it? All of this is only circumstantial evidence,’ said Pontius, gesturing to the tablets before him.
‘Last night two more Pontiffs succumbed to the curse. One is speaking gibberish, the other is in a sleep like death. Our dear Abelia is getting impatient. We have to finish this now.’
Pontius stood in the doorway of the study with the Pontifex Maximus, watching as the other guests organised themselves onto the couches set out in the atrium.
‘Do you really think this will work?’ asked the Pontifex.
‘Galeo is confident. He’s been working hard, it seems his problem may have been that he was just bored,’ replied Pontius.
The Pontifex grunted and continued to watch the guests. They consisted of the Vestal priestesses as well as a few of their slaves. Once they were all seated or standing behind the couches, Galeo entered the room with a small box in his hands. He placed it on a table in front of the chairs.
‘Someone within this room is wearing a mask. The mask of a murderer who caused the Vestalis Maxima Abelia to die,’ he said, his eyes piercing every person in the room.
The priestesses gasped and Alexia exclaimed, ‘You mean Abelia didn’t really break her vows?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, she was caught right in the middle of the act,’ snapped Charis.
‘But why are we here? Surely whoever set poor Abelia up was one of the Pontiffs, isn’t that why they are suffering from the curse?’ asked a Vestal.
‘No,’ said Galeo. ‘The Pontiffs are being targeted first because they’re the easiest. Don’t forget the curse is being fuelled by a mortal woman. Abelia herself doesn’t know who framed her. But I do and she is in this room.
‘Last night after Pontius was attacked I thought to myself, who could possibly gain from the death of Abelia with a complete disregard for the repercussions? I couldn’t understand how a Vestal could do such a thing, knowing as you all do how the Gods anger could destroy Rome. But I realised that humans, no matter how pure, are fools.’
As Galeo gestured to him Pontius approached the table. Slowly, he opened the box. Watching the Vestals carefully, he pulled out the wax tablets inside.
‘These are the wills of the late Vestalis Maxima Abelia,’ announced Galeo.
‘Blasphemy! Our wills are meant to be inviolate. How dare you steal them,’ spat Charis.
‘Perhaps, but they are such an interesting read. I found one in the vault but the other I found hidden in the study, presumably to be thrown away but the culprit was too slow. Pontius, please tell us what the wills say,’ said Galeo with a self-satisfied smirk on his lips.
Pontius raised the first will, ‘This first one says that all of Abelia’s estate shall go to the widow Flora of the Aquillii. But this one, the one found in the vault is different. It states that all of Abelia’s estate shall go to the current Vestalis Maxima Charis.’
Charis scoffed, ‘It’s common for Vestals to put each other in our wills, that doesn’t mean anything.’
‘It wouldn’t, if it weren’t for the fact that the first will was found hidden away. Plus we also had a run in with a certain group of Egyptian cutthroats hired by a slave fitting the description of that boy standing behind you,’ stated Galeo.
Charis stood up, lines bracketed her mouth ‘You are obviously mistaken, this isn’t real proof!’
‘Except that you seem to be the only one here who isn’t horrified that Abelia was so badly mistreated,’ said Pontius.
‘Of course I am,’ snapped Charis.
‘No, you look guilty rather than concerned,’ said Pontius. ‘In fact you sounded pretty pleased yesterday when you corrected Galeo about how you are now the Vestalis Maxima. I think you were tired of waiting for Abelia to retire so you decided to speed things along.’
‘And just to sweeten the deal you forged her will so that you would receive quite the large fortune. Were you planning to retire and live a life of luxury?’ said Galeo in a bored voice, ‘How clichéd.’
‘Is this true Charis?’ asked the Pontifex. ‘But how could you betray Abelia in such a horrible way. And now my Pontiffs are suffering for your sins.’
‘Quiet all of you, you know nothing,’ screeched Charis. Then her eyes went wide as she stared over Galeo’s shoulder. Her hands began shaking and the sweat that had gathered at her temples glided down her ashen cheeks. ‘No,’ she gasped.
Pontius and Galeo spun around. Before them was a smouldering blue fire, floating mid-air. Slowly it formed into the shape of a woman, her hair splayed wildly behind her and her eyes burned white.
She sped towards them and Galeo ducked out of the way, pulling Pontius down with him. As soon as Pontius landed, he craned his head to see where the spectre had gone. Instead of seeing her, he saw Charis convulsing. Blue fire poured out of her mouth, stifling her screams with the familiar sound of crackling flames.
Charis continued to burn until there was nothing left of her but grey ash. The Pontifex called for his slaves to clean the ashes up but the Vestals refused and did the job themselves. They said it would be bad for anyone else to touch such cursed ashes. They put the remains in an earthen jar mixed with salt and sealed with wax.
Later that evening while the Pontifex, Galeo and Pontius were celebrating over a feast, messengers came to tell them that the other Pontiffs had completely recovered.
‘Thank the Gods, it’s all over,’ sighed the Pontifex, sipping on his wine.
‘The way Charis died… Was that Abelia that we saw or Vesta?’ asked Pontius. ‘It felt much too surreal.’
‘It was Abelia,’ said Galeo, grimly. ‘I’ve seen something similar once before after a curse was broken but it wasn’t anything as dramatic as this. As a priestess, Abelia’s spirit was extremely powerful.’
A slave entered the room and stopped at the Pontifex’s shoulder stating, ‘Excuse me Dominus, but Claudia Major is here to see you. She says it’s urgent.’
‘Bring her in,’ replied the Pontifex.
An elegant patrician woman with greying hair glided into the triclinium and said, ‘Oh good, your son is still here. I believe my house is haunted, I would like your son to make this problem go away.’
The Pontifex raised an eyebrow, ‘It’s a pleasure to see you as always Claudia. Well son?’
Galeo grinned, ‘What do you say Pontius? Shall we take the case?’
Hiding his shock at being invited to help, Pontius took a leisurely sip of his wine before coming to an immediate decision, ‘We can’t have this lovely lady suffering.’ He set his wine down on the table, ‘When do we start?’