His bed, bathing bowl, and tent were the only things not directly related to war. A large stump of wood sat solemnly near the center of the tent. He used it as a table for his blade and armor. Though still caked with blood and dirt, each piece was carefully arranged on top with his boots and shin guards resting on the grassy floor.
To my right, there was a basin of water, clearly where he would clean himself. Hanging on one of the posts behind it was an oilskin of water and below it, two loin cloths of leather. In that moment I almost felt sorry for his seemingly lone existence. It was painfully obvious to me that he had everything that I could not.
My observations were interrupted when he stomped into the tent and grabbed his sword. He did not pay me any attention as he grumbled and growled to himself on the way back out. I only caught the words ‘stupid’ and ‘mortally wounded’ as he left.
Afterward, for several minutes, there was silence. Soon, it was replaced with rhythmic chanting and drum beats. As the cadence and intensity grew, I began to catch the words. It was a death chant. I could hear the men committing the fallen warrior into the arms of death and wishing him safe passage across the Styx. Suddenly, it stopped and was replaced by silence. I knew that the warrior had moved on from this life, his thread cut by the Fates. Three more times, the chant rose and fell. In this battle only four men could not be saved.
After a long, camp-wide silence, he finally came back into the tent. Once again he did not appear to notice me. He took a long, deep drink from the skin and then, without looking at me, handed it my way. I hesitated before taking it from him and getting several small sips. I did not realize just how thirsty I was.
Still without acknowledging me, he began to bathe himself. As covertly as possible, I watched. His eyes were closed and his lips moved, but no sound came forth. When he finally finished, he dropped his soiled loincloth, washing himself, and reached for another. At his nudity, I squeaked again in surprise and turned my flushed face away. “And you call yourself Greek,” he said speaking to me for the first time.
My face burned brighter with embarrassment. I tried to stand and leave, but his large hand fell on my shoulder. I looked up. His eyes held none of the bloodlust from before and the madness seemed to be tamed. His voice was soothing and quiet when he spoke again. “You can not leave. I have yet to know why you sought me out in the midst of battle.”
“I…” My mind went blank. All I could focus on was the feeling of his calloused hand against the smoothness of my shoulder. He must have read this in my dumbfounded expression because he removed his hand with a hearty chuckle.
As he settled on the edge of the stump, he folded his large arms across his chest. “What I meant is that not many women seek out my company and certainly fewer do so by trekking through the blood and mud of combat. You must have some reason to risk yourself in that way.”
I looked up at him blankly. My thoughts were jumbled. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I have been having visions,” I said quietly. “They began as dreams and soon took over my waking life.
“I saw you. I saw you warring. I saw you tending the wounded. I saw you pillaging, burning, and taking prisoners as slaves. I saw you walking cloaked down a forest path.
“I can not explain these visions and only know that I have been compelled to seek you out,” I said.
As I spoke, my voice became strong and I became more confident in what I was saying. However, he appeared alarmed and disgusted. He scoffed, causing my confidence to crumble. I looked at my hands and began picking at the dried blood.
“Someone from Olympus is playing with you,” he said scornfully. “It could be Aphrodite or even Zeus. I do not know why those bastards must meddle as they do.”
Ares growled menacingly. I was frightened. He began to pace. “Since time began, I have refused to play their games.” He looked at me with a strange glint in his eyes. “If I were sane, I would send you away right now. However, I believe that I will finally give in and play their little game.”
I saw the madness return. It upset me even more. He strode toward me and I scrambled to the head of the bed trying to get away from him. He leaned down and smiled haughtily at me, “Before we play, though, we must clean you up.”
With that, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me from the bed. In one swift move, he yanked my dress over my head and he began scrubbing my bloody skin. Unsuccessfully, I tried to hide my nakedness. He laughed harshly and forced me to stand there, open and uncovered. My face burned hotly as I tried to hide my shame behind my dark hair. His laughter simply made it worse.
When he finished scrubbing me, my olive skin had been stained pink where the blood had fallen. He wrapped me in one of the furs from his bed and took my soiled dress from the tent. When he returned, all traces of his anger and madness were gone. “Your clothing will be clean and dry by the dawn. Until then if you must remain so modest, you may wear that fur. It is the best I can do on the battlefield.”
I could only nod my head in response. I was mortified by his actions and felt violated. Yet, I was excited by the fact that he had accepted me as he had. At my silence, Ares turned and left the tent. Soon, I could hear the band of warriors celebrating. Someone began to play the lyre and, as one, the men began to sing.
I listened intently for a while. My mood began to lift hearing the joyful song. Soon, my feet carried me to the flap of the tent and I poked my head out toward the noise. I watched my god dance happily around the huge central fire as he played the stringed instrument. Seeing this, some part of me warmed up to the gruff deity. I walked back to the bed with a new perspective. He was very much a god of death, blood, and gore, but he was also merciful and caring toward his soldiers. After all, he did not let the mortally wounded suffer, but he took their pain away with a swift death and sent them into the boat of Chiron. Now, with the raucous singing and merriment, he helped his living soldiers move on from the deaths of their brothers and raised their morale.
I lay back on the pillows and listened to my god and his men. He was as much a healer as he was a killer and that revelation struck me hard.