Citizens of the Roman Empire flocked year-round to Aquae Sulis, a small town in the province of Britannia, to bathe in the sacred waters of the temple and plead their cases with Dea Sulis Minerva. Anyone who had been wronged could ask for revenge by writing their petitions on sheets of lead known as Curse Tablets and throwing them into the holy spring where the goddess dwelt. They did so eagerly and at their own peril.
In the centre of a parlour built of terracotta bricks and adorned with marble courses, Minerva sipped her golden wine, alone. She was used to the solitude, enjoyed it even, but for whatever reason, the silence fell heavier over the triclinium that day. Resting on a reclined couch, she glared at the mosaic walls before her, depicting the goddess and her famous victories: the judgement of Paris and the crumbling of the Trojan walls; the time when she beat her jerk of an uncle Neptune and won the city’s patronage fair and square. Alas, that was such a long time ago. She even held a different name then.
Sighing, she sat up to refill her chalice of wine, the sweet smell filling the air. She’d better start working soon—the petitions would be accumulating already—but a headache threatened to spoil her day. Perhaps she should call Bacchus later. He had the best hangover cures. She lifted the chalice to her mouth, but as the liquid touched her lips, a call came from the hall, “Salvê, I’m home!”
Minerva gasped, wine pouring from her nose.
“Love, are you here?” the voice came louder—closer.
“In here!” Minerva called, wiping her chin and her amber-stained tunic. She chugged the rest of the velvet liquid before Sulis poked her head inside the parlour.
“There you are!” Sulis beamed, arms open as if meaning to embrace the world.
Minerva accepted the hug, doing her best not to look annoyed. Old gods could be so sensitive.
“I hope you had a good trip?” Minerva asked, pouring her partner a glass of wine.
“Oh, the best! I never knew the Dream Valley could be so… dreamy!” Sulis sat on the couch opposite Minerva, her carmine hair bouncing about her fair complexion as she recounted the details of her journey. An hour later, Sulis was still rambling about her holiday. “…Isis showed me around the underworld, and I met Pluto there—not a jolly fellow, is he? And—”
“Things around here are good too,” Minerva interrupted.
“Oh, love, I’m sorry it took me so long to return. I hope the work was not too much?”
“No, love, not at all.”
Sulis smiled, studying their surroundings: the grand parlour and its marble pillars, the vines growing to the ceiling, the statues, the mosaics, the feast presented before them. Her eyes widened in wonder. “Oh, my! Things have changed, haven’t they? What have you been up to?”
“Not much, just caring for your site.”
“Not much? Last time I was here we were nothing more than a bubbling brook. They built a Domus for us?”
“A temple.” Minerva nodded. “And a bath.”
“That’s marvellous!” Sulis clapped excitedly. “And they’ve been worshipping us still?”
“Very much so, yes.”
“Wonderful! Giving away many blessings, have you?”
“Erm… yes, I guess you can say that.”
“Oh, I’m glad.” Sulis hopped to her feet. “Where are they? It’s been a while, but I guess there is no better time to resume my responsibilities than now!”
“Down the hall, you’ll find the spring and the curse—hem, the tablets in the water.”
Grinning, Sulis scrambled out of the parlour. Minerva shook the last bottle of wine, cursing the little amount of liquid left. She should definitely call Bacchus. Sulis’ sudden reappearance would surely worsen her headache and she’d better be prepared.
“Minerva!” Sulis’ voice resonated from the hall. She marched into the parlour and dropped dozens of sheets of lead by Minerva’s feet, her face wriggling in rage. “These are horrible!”
Minerva lifted her chalice in a mocking cheer. “Yep.”
“How—How could they?”
“Humans are horrible.” Minerva shrugged.
“No, no, no, you don’t understand! Listen.” Sulis picked a sheet from the ground and read it aloud, “’Dea Sulis Minerva, a lifetime of itching back, on a spot they can never reach, for stealing my mantle while I was in the bath.’ Why would they pray for such an awful thing?”
“That one is kinda nice. An itching back is annoying, but at least it’s not a bloody stool.” Minerva shuddered. “That one was nasty.”
“No!” Sulis cried. “How could you let things come to this? They used to pray for good weather and healthy crops and—”
“Ceres has those covered now.”
“Oh… well, love then, they could ask for true love!”
“That’s Cupid’s jurisdiction.”
Sulis threw her arms in the air. “So we are left with these petty things?”
“Yeah… I mean, we could call it justice. It sounds better than pettiness, I think.”
“No, this is wrong, this is so wrong! How—”
“Listen, love.” Minerva took Sulis’ hands, squeezing them reassuringly. “You’ve been away for a while, so you’re not in a position to complain. You said you needed a break, and I kindly agreed to help you out, so just… chill. Here, have some wine, it will help.”
Sulis accepted the chalice, defeat written on her face as she sank back onto the couch. She sipped the wine and picked another tablet. “This one asks for a year-round of nightmares for an insult.”
“Hum… spiders maybe? A couple crawling on their bed every night sounds fitting?”
Sulis scowled before picking another one. “To murder the neighbour who deflowered their daughter.”
“Ooh, murderers are expensive, we’re sure to cash in big.” Minerva scratched her chin. “How about stepping in a waterhole by mistake? No, better yet, cut their finger on a rose thorn and die of sepsis!”
“What?” Minerva patted the air. “I’m just brainstorming here.”
Sulis shot to her feet, pacing around the younger goddess. “But what if the daughter wanted to be deflowered? What if the mantle kept the thief warm and safe at night? What if the insult was justified?”
“All right, I hear you,” Minerva said, putting down her chalice. “We can shake things up a bit, it’s not like we are wanting for money. How about we curse the curser instead? Make them pay for their pettiness?”
“We shouldn’t be cursing people at all!” Sulis cried. “But also, we cannot go around indulging their every desire or they will never learn to be better.”
“Ugh, you sound like Prometheus and his love for the creatures.” Minerva leaned back on her couch, nursing the headache that pierced her temples. “He lost his liver for his kindness, but humans do not deserve it. You’ve just been away too long and forgot about it.”
“Well, I’m back now. Let’s go!”
Minerva’s eyes shot open. “Go where?”
“To the Baths!”
Agnes stomped across the Temple complex, her grandmother Cassia in tow. Her light robes fluttered dramatically as she strode, her dark hair billowing in her wake. Aquae Sulis burst with activity, as citizens enjoyed the hot spring, pools, and exercise areas. Merchants cried as she passed by, offering all the goods one could ever want, but Agnes ignored them all. She had to find the spring where the goddess dwelt.
“Will you slow down!” her grandmother called, struggling to catch up with Agnes’ purposeful steps. “My legs aren’t what they used to be.”
Agnes halted inside the hall of the Great Bath, a massive pool of hot healing water lined with forty-five sheets of lead—bigger versions of the one she clutched in her hand. The barrel-vaulted hall rose to the heavens, the largest building Agnes had ever seen, with walls painted scarlet and white, torches burning against pillars despite the natural light cascading from the high glass windows. Niches around the pool held benches and tables, where bathers ate and chatted, spying on those who chose to exercise and display their muscles and strength. Agnes took a deep breath. The hot vapours inside the hall were overwhelming. The scent of sulphur and sweat, revolting. The sheer number of people was staggering; Agnes wanted—needed—to get away.
“Ah!” Cassia said, joining her granddaughter. “Even the floor is heated! What a treat. After our sauna, we should take a bath in the caldarium and—”
“We’re not here to enjoy ourselves,” Agnes interrupted. “Now, where is the spring?”
“In the very heart of the complex, but—”
Agnes bolted away, anger rushing her steps. If nobody in this whole world would help her, Sulis Minerva would.
Minerva stifled a chuckle as Sulis marvelled at the structure built in their honour. The elder goddess gasped at every corner, praising the engineering and the beauty of their temple. She grinned in awe at the tiled mosaics depicting seahorses and dolphins, celebrated the imposing overarching roof, approved the steps leading into the water, and praised the ingenious plumbing and drainage channels toward the River Avon. Minerva had become somewhat desensitised to the place, but found amusing her partner’s reaction to their worship site.
“Do you think she looks like me?” Sulis asked, studying their gilt bronze statue inside the cella.
“She has your eyes,” Minerva said, “but my nose and brow. That helmet is unfortunate, though. It hides my best features.” She pulled the elder goddess away from the temple, leading her into the Great Bath.
“Oh, they are so clever!” Sulis cried, as her feet touched the heated floor. “And so pretty! Look at those bodies—so flexible and healthy! And so… diverse!”
Unaware of the goddess gauging at them, a group of young men lifted weights by the pool, naked, dark skin gleaming with sweat. Sulis traced the lines of their torsos and backs with her fingers, eyes wide and mouth agape, before running to a group of women braiding each other’s hair.
“You did a good job with these waters,” Minerva said, “the spring provides good health and stamina, so they come from all over the empire. From the North, South, East and West, we are highly… What was that word? Ah, democratic! The temple is always crowded like this.”
“Indeed!” Sulis spun on her hills. “What else could they ever want?”
“Revenge, it seems.” Minerva shrugged, plucking a chalice from a woman’s hand. The woman carried on her conversation, oblivious to the theft.
“Right.” A flick of anger crossed Sulis’ eyes.
“So… what’s your plan, exactly?” Minerva asked, sipping the wine. Not as good as Bacchus’ vintage, but it would do.
“Well, if I’m to curse people, I’ll get the full story first.”
“And if you disagree with the petition?”
“I’ll curse them instead as you said.”
“Ooh, exciting!” Minerva pointed at a girl striding along the pool, an older woman in her wake. “How about her? She looks mad and… Yep, she is definitely going for the spring.”
Agnes’s footsteps and heavy breathing were the only sounds breaking the silence in the heart of the temple. Contrasting with the other parlours, the spring gushed boiling water to an absent audience, steam and heat clinging to the marble walls. She knelt before the spring, on a circle of colourful mosaic depicting the goddess in her golden crown and spear.
Singing a prayer, Agnes swung the crumbled tablet over her head—but a calloused hand held her wrist, preventing her from throwing the curse into the water.
“Grandma!” Agnes cried.
“Shush! We’re in a sacred place, no shouting in here.”
Agnes tried to pull her hand free, but Cassia held her fast and forced her fingers open, snatching the tablet inside. Her eyes narrowed as she read the inscriptions. “Cursing him is not the answer.”
“What is then?” Agnes cried. “Nobody will listen to me—nobody! The curator, the master, Lord Callus, they say I could never have written the poem because I lack a fucking cock!”
Cassia chuckled, joining her granddaughter on the floor. “As if cocks could write anything, eh?”
“But I did write it,” Agnes said, curling her hands into fists, eyes welling with tears. “That’s my piece! And he—he stole it, that utter prick! Claimed my words as his!”
“I know, carissima.” Cassia took her granddaughter’s hands, massaging them open. “That was unfair, and you’re right. But please, think before you do something you’ll regret.”
“I won’t regret it, grandma, I swear I’ll laugh as I watch him burn!”
Cassia sighed. “I would too if that made any difference. But even if Sulis Minerva heeds your plea—and she will, these waters are strong—what difference will that make? He’ll be immortalised in the hall of poets, and you’ll never get the recognition you deserve.”
Agnes’s chest tightened, her cheeks burning hot. She threw herself on her grandma’s lap, who stroked her hair, soothing her as she wept. The curse tablet was her last option. The last chance of getting any sense of justice back, but now, even that was lost. Grandma was right. That prick dying wouldn’t change those old farts’ minds—they knew the truth already! Her heart hammered against her chest. She would never be published. She would never become the poet she knew she could become. “I worked so hard on that piece! Nights spent awake, hunting the old libraries, carefully choosing every single word and—”
“Listen.” Cassia pushed her to a sitting position, lifting her chin so Agnes stared straight into her wrinkled eyes. “I’m not telling you to give up, just to… be smart about it.”
“How, grandma? How can I set things right?” Agnes sniffed, cleaning her nose on her tunic.
“Here.” From her pocket, Cassia produced a brand-new sheet, gloriously blank. “We must always be mindful of what we wish for. Don’t ask for specific things. Don’t be stupid thinking you can choose the sentence to his crimes.”
Agnes took the sheet with trembling hands.
“Tell the goddess what happened,” Cassia said, “and let her weave his fate. She’s a woman like us. She’ll understand.”
Minerva stared at the two women by the spring, mesmerised. The girl’s petition… It reminded her of past disputes against her brothers and uncles, and how even her father could be a jerk sometimes. Well, all the time, though seldom directed at her. But that was not it—not all of it. As she watched the old woman consoling the young one, shushing her sorrow away, a long-forgotten memory flared in her mind, of another desperate girl with the same dark wavy hair. Minerva had not been able to save her then—had failed to see Neptune’s scheme and malice until it was all too late. Gorgo. The memory welled inside her heart, shame straining her chest, guilt burning behind her eyes.
“She worked so hard for the poem,” Minerva breathed.
“She did.” Sulis pushed herself out of the spring, splashing hot water on the mosaic floor. “What do you think we should do? Minerva?”
“What do you think we should do?” Sulis repeated, handing over the retrieved tablet.
“Ah, yes.” Minerva blinked, snapping out of her gloom. She read the inscription before crushing it in her fist. “We should burn him like she said.”
“Are you crying?” Sulis asked.
“No! Of course not!” Minerva wiped her cheeks, turning her back to the elder goddess. “It’s the steam and heat. Allergies. There’s something in my eye.”
“Aw, how sweet! Her prayer got to you, eh?”
“Stop it!” Minerva stormed out of the hall, climbing the steps back to the Great Bath. “It’s just that I know what it’s like to have your work undone by men.”
“But you heard the lady, burning him will do no good.”
“Maybe not, but I’d love to do it anyway.”
“Why don’t we burn his career and ego first?”
Minerva halted, causing Sulis to bump against her back. “What do you have in mind?”
Sulis tossed her red hair, an impish grin growing on her lips. “Oh, you’ll see.”
From all over the province, people flocked to the Temple, driven by an out-of-the-blue urge to bathe in the sacred waters. They marched into the Great Bath hall, some leaning shyly against the scarlet walls, some undressing boldly and diving into the pool. Everyone who was someone came to the baths that day. Everyone who might have been someone given different circumstances did too. Among the procession was the poet Titus, and his retinue of lords and scholars.
“Ah, Lord Callus, what a great idea you had,” Titus said, patting his companion on the shoulder. He flagged a servant and demanded a table. The boy ushered a group out of a nest to accommodate the famous poet and his crew. “Wine?”
Lord Callus nodded, leaning against his seat. Steam clung to his golden hair and skin, making him shine like a bronze sculpture. “I believe it was Master Chronicler who suggested coming here today.”
“Oh, no,” said the Chronicler, a stout little man. “Master Curator told me in the morning he meant to visit the baths.”
“No, I didn’t,” said the Curator, scratching his balding head. “Titus was the one who invited me.”
“Enough wine for you, my lords!” Titus’s laugh echoed about the bath, resonating over the chattering and the splashing of water until it stopped abruptly.
Lord Callus followed his friend’s frozen gaze, a grin creeping to his lips. Agnes stood on the opposite side of the pool, eyes locked with the poet, fury written on her face.
“What is it?” the Curator asked, squinting his eyes as he scanned the place.
“An unhappy lady,” said Lord Callus. “She’s been dealt with, Titus, so relax. She cannot hurt you.”
“Lady Agnes is here?” asked the Chronicler. “Oh, poor thing. She looks most distre—”
Titus rose, bumping against the table and almost turning the chalices and jars in the process. He stood trembling for a beat of a heart before storming out of the nest. Moving oddly, as if his legs were forcing his will, he halted at the edge of the pool, staring at the lady on the opposite side.
“I…hem—” Titus cleared his throat. “I—” Something stuck inside his mouth, pressing against his tongue. “I—” he cried, his face red and sweaty. People noticed his odd behaviour, heads turning towards him. “I stole it!”
A heavy silence descended over the Great Bath. Lights dimmed down. From a high window, a lonely ray of sunshine washed over him. Like a play in an amphitheatre, Titus stood under the spotlight, all eyes on him. “I stole the poem Diana!” he bellowed. “Lady Agnes wrote it but I called it mine!”
A second ray of sunshine lit Agnes as another character being introduced to the audience. She smiled, her face relaxed, eyes gleaming with pride. Beside her, another woman stepped into the light. Agnes took her hand.
“I stole Europe!” Titus cried, spit shooting from his lips. “Domitia wrote the poem and I called it mine!”
“What are you doing, man!” Callus barked, pulling Titus by the arm.
Titus jerked his hand free, pushing Callus back. The lord fell over a table, and strong arms held him in place—strong dark arms of the young men who had been exercising by the pool.
“I stole Amatoria!” Titus cried. “Marcus wrote it and I called it mine!”
Marcus, a young man with red curly hair, joined Agnes and Domitia. Then Albina and Mariana, as their names and poems were called, followed by Octavia, Felix, Antonia, Sirius, and Lucia. Titus’ victims stood in line, hands clasped together, as the jury and witnesses to the poet’s crimes.
“I stole from them all!” Titus’ breath came in gulps of air. He pulled against his hair, clenched teeth, trying to stop the words flooding from his mouth. Unhinged, he stripped off his tunic. Naked, he bellowed his confession. “I tried to write! I really did, but the muses never answered my call! My poems are broken! I’m an impostor! A fraud! But these people—half of them mere women, and the men, nothing but plebeians! Ha! They can write but they cannot publish! What an irony! I can publish! I published their work as mine!”
“Shut the fuck up, Titus!” Lord Callus pleaded against the arms holding him in place.
“Callus knew!” Titus cried, pointing an accusing finger. “The Curator and the Chronicler knew! They were complicit! They helped… they… they—”
Light flooded the parlour as the spell broke off. The chattering of the crowd began anew, eyes glaring at the naked not-a-poet as curses flew in the air. People booed.
An elder lady threw a ripe plum at Titus; the fruit bounced off his head, tainting his face with red juice. Cabbages followed, grapes and figs plumbing down the man. Titus ran. A servant boy flipped a jug of wine over his torso, boos and curses trailing in the wake of Lord Callus, the Curator, and the Chronicle—the crowd chasing them out.
“Well done!” Minerva lifted her chalice, saluting the elder goddess. She watched Agnes embrace her new friends, cheering with the crowd who patted their backs and shook their hands. “What now?”
“Well, see that old man by the pool?” Sulis asked, “He is in charge of the library. Due to the sheer number of witnesses—important ones too, I summoned everyone who was someone here today, including a Tribune from Londinium—he’ll have no choice other than to give credit where credit is due. The girl and the other poets will have the recognition they deserve and that’ll set a precedent for generations to come.”
“He doesn’t look very happy,” said Minerva, eyeing the old man’s scowl. “But I’ll make sure he follows your plan.” She waved her hand at him. “A nightmare a night until he sets things right.”
Sulis chuckled. “You and your curses.”
Minerva waved at a servant. The boy refilled her chalice as if she were just another visitor and not the goddess in charge. Sulis took a chalice of her own before the boy wiggled away. Arm in arm, they bathed in the joy their curse had woven.
“Thank you,” came a voice from behind.
Sulis and Minerva turned. Before them stood Cassia, the girl’s grandmother, beaming with pride.
“She can see us?” Sulis whispered. “Like, really see us?”
“I think she can,” Minerva muttered.
Cassia kissed each of the goddesses’ hands before joining her granddaughter for a hug.
“You know what, Sulis?” Minerva said, “You were right. Getting to know these humans before we curse them was a great idea. I believe… I’ll keep this up.”
“We’ll keep this up, love.” The goddesses clinked their chalices together. “Make sure they get what they deserve.”
Author Note: Thank you for reading this story, I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to learn more about Dea Sulis Minerva and their temple in Bath, click HERE.
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