Niamh watched to make sure no one spotted them as Ares worked his way to the edge of the camp and shimmied up a tree, climbing carefully out on a branch that hung over the main campfire. Wrapping his thin legs tightly around the branch, he slowly lowered his body into a hanging position. For the first time since this started, he thanked the Gods for his smaller body that didn’t cast a shadow.
Ares whispered, “Auntie H-Hes, I know we d-don’t sp-spend m-much t-time t-together, but if you c-could find it in your h-heart t-to h-help m-me s-save th-this g-girl’s m-mom, th-that’d b-be g-great.” Ares pulled the herbs he’d picked, waited until no one was watching the fire (which took longer than his young muscles wanted) and dropped the herbs into the fire.
The fire grew, glowed a blue color, and then sank down to its previous size. Ares pulled himself up and said a quiet thank you to Hestia. When he joined Niamh, again he held his hand up for quiet, took her hand, and walked them silently back to the boulder. They sat, side by side, waiting for the right time, too nervous to sleep.
A couple of hours later, Ares looked up at the night sky and saw it brightening at the edges of the horizon. He stood up and took Niamh’s hand. “It’s t-time.”
They walked back to the camp and were met with silence. Ares motioned for Niamh to stand guard and slowly crept up to a man passed out in an awkward position, snoring loudly. Ares carefully slid the knife from the man’s belt and backed away.
“I’m g-gonna g-go g-get your m-mom n-now. Be r-ready.”
Niamh just nodded, her brow furrowed in worry. “Be careful!” she whisper-screamed after him.
Ares walked to the other side of the camp and whispered a silent prayer to the Gods that the herbs worked. He made it to where Niamh’s mother was hanging and cringed at how weak and pale she looked. He slid the knife in his belt and quickly climbed one of the trees supporting the pole. Praying it would take his weight, he carefully inched out onto the pole, the movement startling the woman and causing her to cry out until she saw Ares’ small body.
“Ssshhhh. I’m g-gonna h-help you,” he whispered.
Her eyes were wide with fear and exhaustion, but she nodded. He made his way closer. “I’m g-gonna c-cut th-the b-bonds at your wrists, okay?” She nodded in understanding. With a few quick movements of the knife, he was able to remove the ropes from her wrists and she sighed with audible relief.
Ares let out a soft owl call and smiled when it was returned. Niamh broke through the trees and gasped when she saw her mother, clamping her hands over her mouth to keep from crying out.
“G-get th-the st-stuff.” Niamh nodded and reluctantly rushed away. Ares addressed her mother again. “W-What’s your n-name?”
“Cliona. Please, young man, get my daughter out of here.”
“H-hush. I’m g-gonna c-cut your b-back legs. C-can you h-hang on t-to the p-pole?”
She looked at her bloody wrists and flexed her fingers. “I’ll do whatever I need to in order to get out of here.”
Ares nodded and slowly slid across the pole, careful not to touch her hooves. He turned around to face her front and looked down. Niamh had been busy layering the mats of grass they wove together earlier while they waited. Once the mats were spread out under her mother, she made several trips to gather leaves and moss to add to the pile. Ares waited until Niamh had gotten the pile almost finished before he cut the ropes from Cliona’s back hooves.
Cliona nodded and wrapped her arms around the pole, hooking her elbows onto it. Ares cut one last time and released her back legs. Her legs crumpled onto themselves and she let out a pained, but muffled, cry. Ares scooted to her front legs.
“Almost d-done.” He focused on cutting the ropes and tried to ignore the tears streaming down both mother and daughter’s faces. Just before he was done, he paused and whistled to Niamh, who positioned herself underneath them.
“Okay, I’m g-gonna c-cut you l-lose and f-fall under you t-to c-cushion your f-fall. N-Niamh’s g-gonna b-be th-there, t-too.”
Her eyes got wide. “No! I will crush you! You will die! I won’t let you get hurt just to save me.” New tears formed in her eyes.
Ares laid a gentle hand on her arm. “It’s okay, I’m a G-God.”
A burst of hysterical laughter forced its way from her mouth. “You’re just a child.”
“I h-haven’t b-been a ch-child in a long t-time, m-ma’am.”
The intense look on his young face made her pause. “I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“You w-won’t. I p-promise.” He gave her a watered-down version of his trademark hot-boy smile and it eased her enough that she could focus on the fall. Just before he cut the final rope, Ares looked at her. “D-don’t tw-twist your legs under you, th-they’ll b-break. L-let m-my b-body b-break your f-fall, and th-then you and N-Niamh g-get out of here.”
Cliona took a deep breath and nodded. Ares sliced his knife one last time through the ropes and just as they split, he swung his body down. She turned to her side and curled in to protect vital parts and Ares grabbed her legs, pulling his small body directly under hers just as they hit the pile Niamh had built.
Pain shot through his entire body, forcing the air from his lungs and tears from his eyes as he was crushed under her adult centaur weight. I really hope I didn’t lie about being a God.
Niamh hugged her mother’s neck tightly as they both cried in reunion.
“G-go.” Ares pushed the word from his mouth with a last expulsion of breath.
“Oh no, Ares!” Niamh struggled to help her mother off of Ares’ body. Cliona stumbled and had to lean heavily on Niamh. Ares groaned. Niamh went to help him up, but he just waved her off.
Gasping, he said, “G-get your m-mother out of here.”
“I’ll never forget this, Ares. Thank you for saving my mother.”
Cliona looked at Ares with fresh tears in her eyes. “Thank you, young man. May the Gods bless you and your family.” Niamh wrapped her arms around her mother and they stumbled home, leaving Ares lying on the damp forest floor, staring up at the lightening sky and trying to catch his breath.
Once he was breathing properly, he rolled onto his side and slowly pushed himself up. He cursed under his breath, knowing that the coming morning chased away any chance he had of saving his own mother. He felt wetness on his cheeks and roughly wiped them away. This younger version of his body was entirely too sentimental for him.
Ares grabbed the knife and headed into the camp. Fucking and fighting were the two things that gave him the most pleasure, the two things he was the best at, so he ran his knife across the necks of the sleeping men, stopping only at the leader. He took a moment to slam the knife home into the man’s eye socket.
“You d-don’t h-hurt women.” Ares spit at the man and then stumbled into a nearby tree. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. As he sat against the tree, he watched the sunrise and his heart broke into a thousand pieces, knowing he just wasn’t enough to save his mother. He sat there, despondent, as the sun warmed his skin. He sat there as the sun crested high in the sky and the flies started to swarm. He sat there as the wolves and other wild animals emerged from the forest, their mouths dripping with saliva over the smell of fresh blood.
He sat there, tears staining his face as the sun started to set. As the day got darker, Ares sighed, the first conscious noise he’d made in the hours since he sat down. He rubbed the grit from his eyes and wondered how Niamh and her mother fared. Finally, he got up and slowly made his way back to the cave he started at.
By the time he got there, his little legs could barely hold him. He collapsed to his knees just outside of the entrance and covered his face with his hands. “I’m s-sorry, M-mother. I t-tried t-to help, I r-really d-did.” Ares sat there crying silently until he felt a gentle hand brushing the hair from his forehead.
“Shh, my son. You did very well.”
Ares looked up and saw his mother looking down at him. “B-but I d-didn’t s-save you.”
“Oh, my heart, you weren’t supposed to save me. You were supposed to save yourself.” Hera kneeled down and gathered him into her arms, hugging him tightly.
Ares was confused. “H-how was I s-supposed t-to s-save m-myself?”
She kissed the top of his head. “Don’t you see? You put that young girl’s pain before your own and instead of rushing in like you normally would, you waited and made a plan. You used your wit and not your muscle, and because of that, you helped that girl and her mother.”
Ares wrapped his arms around Hera and snuggled into her embrace, fully taking advantage of being young again to get the comfort from her that he so desperately missed. Hera held him quietly for a time before pulling away. She took his chin in her hand and guided his eyes to hers.
“You are not alone, Ares. As long as you have your family, you are never alone.” She smiled. “Now, let’s get you back to them, shall we?” She stood and brought Ares to his feet and then walked him to the cave opening.
“Go back to your brother and sisters and protect them as only you can. I will be watching over you, my heart.”
Ares squeezed Hera around the waist one last time, wiped a lone tear with the back of his hand and stepped toward the cave. He pressed his hand at the opening and felt the resistance of the barrier. He stood there for several moments, pushing against the barrier, trying to find a way in until he heard Hera let out a loud exasperated sigh and then felt her push him forward, his body tearing its way through the barrier with a loud rip.
He felt his essence shed his body just as he fell into the dark cave. Before he could orient himself, he was sucked back into the black void, noises assaulting his ears. Just when he was about to scream in frustration, he was slammed back into his body.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!” Ares roared as he stumbled forward a few steps.
Hephaestus grabbed Ares and maneuvered him out of the way. “Give us a minute, girls.” Moxie reached for Nike’s hand and nodded, pulling Nike to the corner to give the boys some privacy.
Hephaestus gripped Ares’ shoulders tightly to help ground him. “You okay, man?”
Ares looked around wildly for a minute while he grounded himself in his brother’s grip. He took a few deep breaths and felt something wet trail down his nose. He brushed it away angrily. “I couldn’t save her, Heph. I ran out of time. I couldn’t save her,” he whispered hoarsely.
Hephaestus pulled his brother into a tight hug. “It’s okay. It wasn’t real.”
“But how do you know?”
Hephaestus thought back to his own trial. “Because it can’t be. Now pull yourself together, we’re running out of time.”