When it was just him and his mother, Atreus couldn't be happier.
She was everything a seven year old boy could need; she was teacher, storyteller, medicine woman, confidant and friend. And while Atreus had only known a few acquaintances outside of their warded off section of the wood, he never felt the desire for the company of others. The people in his mother's stories may have had armies, impressive households or large families made up of several generations, but he did not. He didn't need such things. Not when he had his mother.
Today Faye was taking him hunting, still a new experience for the boy, and while he would never admit it, fearing he might disappoint her, or earn his father's scorn, Atreus wasn't sure he was ready. His bow, which he carried over his shoulder, was too large for him, and he had found practicing with it hard. The bowstring was difficult to pull back and even when aiming at his mother's largest woven targets he still often missed.
If Atreus did not pull back his arm far enough his arrows would wind up falling short but if he pulled with all his strength then his muscles would begin to hurt which would then impact his aim, resulting in his shot becoming too high, sailing over the intended target.
His mother's kind and encouraging words did lift his spirits and would force the boy to try again each morning when his parents were busy with their own tasks but seeing the skill and precision his mother had with a bow, able to down a raven in flight from almost fifty feet away without needing a second to adjust her aim, it filled Atreus with shame. He wasn't like his mother; he was too weak to be good at archery, too sickly.
But even with his fears and self-doubts snapping away at his heels his mother still found ways to bring a smile to his face as they walked through their forest.
"Look at this." Faye whispered, stopping in her tracks and staring down at a small pile of fallen leaves, hardly a noteworthy sight when travelling through a forest. Bending down slowly, she brushed a few of top ones aside, worked her hands into the pile and then slowly stood up.
Atreus, hopping from one foot to the other in effort to see what had earned his mother's attention, broke into a bright smile as he saw the small creature sitting in her hands. "A hedgehog!"
The usually shy creature seemed to have no fear in Faye's hands and at her slightest touch it rolled onto its back, presenting its soft belly to Atreus. For a moment the boy was worried the hedgehog's quills would hurt his mother, but her small smile reassured him that the animal was causing her no harm.
Slowly, fearing he might somehow ruin the moment, the boy reached out and poked the hedgehog's belly with a finger. The creature squeaked in surprise and quickly rolled into a ball causing Faye to laugh.
"Well, I think she's done for today." Lowering the small creature gently back into the pile of leaves, Faye covered the hedgehog from sight and then continued on her way. For a moment Atreus stood, longing, wishing that he and his mother could simply stay in the forest, discovering new and amazing things rather than hunt. But as Faye continued on marching through the trees Atreus began to jog after her.
Their destination was a wide but shallow pond that divided a large clearing near the edge of their forest where all manner of species from the cunning fox, the noble stag, to the mighty bear would come to drink in the clean and refreshing waters, making it the perfect place to teach a fledgling hunter his craft.
Emerging from the tree line Atreus was relieved to see that the body of water was deserted. With no animals to hunt, he could not be asked to use his bow and for another day the boy's poor marksmanship wouldn't bring shame to his mother. Or himself.
But rather than turn and return to the forest Faye continued marching on. Atreus followed her, stumbling a little as the ground beneath his feet changed from smooth earth and leaves to the softer mud and sand of the pond's shore.
"Mother?" Moving towards a large bed of reeds Faye ducked down and quickly beckoned for her son to join her. He did so; unsure on why she hid beside an empty pond. "Mother, what are we doing here?"
"Hunting, you silly goose." Faye said.
"But…" Atreus stood up slowly, peeking over the tall reeds and wondered if he had perhaps missed something, but the shore around the large pond was still devoid of any animal big or small. His mother's rough hand found his and with a soft tug she pulled Atreus back to his knees. "There isn't anything there." He whispered.
"Not yet." Faye smiled and produced from her satchel a small wooden cylinder. Bringing it to her lips she blew three quick blasts into the whistle. The noise it made was exactly like the cry of a duck and for a second Atreus believed he had witnessed some form of magic.
He released it wasn't witchcraft when his mother repeated the action and another series of duck calls rung out over the large pond.
Whipping the mouth piece clean, Faye then offered the whistle to her son who starred at it in amazement. "Did you make this?" He asked, studying it carefully, running his fingers over the small holes carved into the wood.
Faye nodded. "I can teach you how to make your own duck caller someday, and others."
"There are many animal whistles you can make."
Atreus smiled shyly as he brought the whistle to his mouth. Faye carefully adjusted his hold on the instrument; he then took in a deep breath and blew. It certainly sounded like a duck, but it wasn't right. Rather than the short snappy quacks his mother had made, the boy's call sounded as if something large had been dropped on the creature, and he had produced its last wailing cry.
Flushing red, Atreus pushed the whistle away from his mouth, ashamed that he had messed up even the simplest of things. But his mother stopped him. "Try again, and short blows okay?"
He nodded and tried again, following his mother's words of wisdom. This time the duck call sounded more natural.
A few seconds later there was a reply.
Flapping their wings as they descended, almost two dozen ducks landed causing the quiet pond to erupt into a frenzy of quacking, splashing and paddling feet.
"They came?" Atreus asked, peeking over the top of the reeds, careful to not show too much of his head. The ducks, oblivious to their presence were as happy as anything in the body of water and began to slowly spread out over the pond.
"Because you called them." Faye nodded. Then removing her bow from her back, she notched an arrow onto the string and started to move silently towards the edge of the reed bed.
Copying her movements, and hoping that his hands would stop shaking, Atreus followed his mother and kneeled next to her.
"Aim for the centre of the flock." She counselled, drawing back her arm. Atreus did the same, trying not to show the effort it took in making the bowstring move. "Take your time; we will fire when you're ready."
Atreus nodded, only to then have to adjust his aim as his bow sagged in his grip. His hands were quickly growing moist from sweat and his arms were starting to ache, how much longer could he continue to hold back his shot?
He was going to miss. His heart already knew it. He was trying to line up a good shot as the brightly coloured ducks continued paddling around the pond, oblivious to him and his mother. "Take your time." She repeated.
He didn't need more time; time wasn't going to improve his shot. In fact every second he continued to hold on only made it more likely he was going to miss. Licking his dry lips Atreus tried to aim higher. His muscles begged for release and without meaning to he let out a grunt of pain. His mother's head turned slightly to stare at him and he felt shame flood through him. Then his fingers slipped.
With a soft twang his arrow was released and it went sailing towards the flock of ducks. Instantly Atreus closed his eyes, expecting a scolding for failing and messing up. He should have practised more, or wished harder that he wasn't so sickly.
A wailing quack, not unlike the one he had produced earlier with his mother's whistle rang out and a second later he heard the twang of his mother's bow string. "You got one." She said.
Opening his eyes, Atreus saw that the flock of ducks were in full panic mode and were now hastily taking to the skies in order to avoid their invisible killers. Another of Faye's arrows sailed through the air, knocking a plump duck from the sky. Watching it fall the young boy could see that his mother had been telling the truth, there were now three ducks floating on the surface of the pond, two were from his mother's incredible sharpshooting.
But the third, that was his.
He hadn't failed.
Relief, joy and an overwhelming sense of thankfulness to whatever force or power it was that had allowed him to make the shot filled Atreus. Quacking frantically the flock of ducks were now making good their escape and were disappearing over the treeline on the opposite side of the pond.
Atreus didn't doubt that his mother could have kept firing; adding perhaps three more ducks to their haul before they vanished from sight but instead she returned her bow back over her should and began to stand up. Then giving her son a small but rewarding pat on the shoulder, she began to wade into the pond's waters towards their prizes.
Holding his oversized bow in amazement, Atreus wasn't able to believe he had done it, only an hour or so ago he had missed several shots during his morning practice and now he had managed to hit a living creature far smaller than his mother's targets.
It had been luck, of that he would not argue, that his shot had landed. But he had still done it. He wouldn't go home empty handed. Grinning from ear to ear, Atreus stood and returned his bow over his shoulder and moved towards the pond to help his mother bag the ducks.
A blood chilling howl rang out, causing several dozen birds to fly from the tree tops on the opposite side of the pond. For a moment Atreus stood frozen, not able to believe what was happening until the sound of foliage being trampled and the terrified squawks and cries of forest creatures brought him back to reality. Something was coming towards them, fast.
"Mother!" He cried out and began racing towards her.
Faye, up to her knees in the pond's waters, had stopped and was now staring in the direction of the approaching threat. "Atreus stay hidden!"
The seven year old hadn't heard his mother use such a commanding tone before and immediately retreated back to the reed bed and ducked down out of sight. He expected his mother to turn and join him but instead Faye continued to stand in the pond, between him and the unknown.
The sound of snapping wood and yielding tree's filled the air as the forest was being mutilated from within by the approaching creature. Peering through the reeds Atreus waited, watching the tree line in both fear and fascination.
Running into the clearing came a walking nightmare unlike any Atreus had ever seen or heard of. Even in his mother's incredible stories, featuring Giants, Gods and monsters from all nine realms, never had she spoken of such a creature.
It shared the shape of a man but its head was a clean white deer skull. Protruding from either side of this bleached head was a set of black stag antlers, thin and branching ending with sharp points. The rest of the creature's body was covered in thick dark fur.
And it was tall. So much more than his mother or his father that Atreus felt genuine heart stopping fear as the beast slowly began to approach Faye. It spread its long arms out on either side of its body, displaying its impressive reach and eight bony fingers.
Reaching behind her, Faye gripped the handle of the Leviathan Axe and drew the weapon from its holder. The runes on the axe head glowed and a magical frost crept over it, empowering it with winter's touch. Holding it out to one side, she slipped into a warrior's stance and waited for the monster to make its move.
Bleach skull, the walking nightmare, stopped and for a second seemed to regard Atreus's mother with something. Fear? Respect? Hatred? It was impossible to tell, the beast's eyes were small and red and from his hiding spot, the seven year old had no way to truly grasp what was running through the monster's mind.
A second later and it did not matter.
Swinging a long arm at his mother, Bleach Skull aimed to slice her into ribbons in a single move. But Faye was no longer standing where she had been and the bony fingers found only empty air. Then the monster shrieked in pain as Atreus's mother buried the Leviathan axe into its hand, and the frost magic began to consume its flesh.
Staggering back, Bleach Skull found that his hand was still connected to the axe and with a strong pull Faye brought the beast tumbling towards her. Closing her free hand into a tight fist she drove it into the monster's chest.
Then she pulled her axe free, shattering the frost that held it and swung it at Bleach Skull's head.
The thick bone that comprised the monster's face held, but the force of the swing sent the nightmarish beast flying backwards into the pond's shallow waters. Twirling her axe, Faye advanced on the fallen creature.
Atreus watched shocked, unable to move or even think.
His mother was fighting a monster, a real terror of the world, and she was winning.
The idea that he could add hero to his mother's list of attributes filled the seven year old with immeasurable pride and love, now she could tell his father about her own epic battle amongst the tales she spun around the fire.
A horrific shriek filled the air. A second later and another monster arrived.
Smaller than the first, this one was missing most of its right antler and sported several ugly scars that its black fur couldn't quite cover. Charging on all fours, the beast continued to shriek loudly, aiming its single antler at Faye.
Leaping away from Bleach Skull, Faye threw the Leviathan axe straight at Scar Tip. The weapon would have cleaved the monster's exposed skull in two had it not raised its left limb at the last second. Digging deep into its arm, the monster howled in pain but did not cease its charge.
Shifting her weight, Faye threw herself to the right and avoided the monster's wild tackle. Skidding to a halt, Scar Tip rose onto two legs, hunched over and hissed. Ripping the axe free from its arm, the beast threw it over its shoulder and let out a menacing roar. From behind Atreus's mother, Bleach Skull began to rise.
Trapped between the two beasts and unarmed, Atreus felt his heart stop as the odds shifted against his mother. He tried to move, to come bursting out of the reeds with his bow, firing away like a hero in one of his mother's tales. But he didn't. His body only quivered in fright and he remained perfectly still.
A sob escaped him as Bleach Skull and Scar Tip moved in for the kill.
Raising her hand, Faye didn't need to wait for more than a second as the Leviathan axe flew from the pond's water and returned to its owner. Holding her weapon over her head she then unleashed a magical shock wave, sending both monster's staggering backwards. Following through, Faye turned and rushed at Bleach Skull, driving the axe into the beast's stomach.
Thanking whoever out there might be listening, Atreus tried to retake control of his trembling body. He couldn't continue to sit and cower while his mother fought for her life. He needed to help. Slowly, his knees began to obey him and the boy began to rise up.
Peering over the reeds, Atreus could see that his mother was driving her elbow into Scar Tip's face, knocking the beast down.
Trying to ignore the shaking in his hands, he reached behind him for his quiver. Having fired only one arrow on today's hunting trip he had plenty more to work with but as he brushed the feathery tips with his fingers, his mind began to wonder. Could he really hope to help? He had gotten lucky hitting that duck, but the monsters were so much stronger, and were constantly moving. What if he failed and they both decided to come for him?
He fought with his fears, watching as his mother almost severed Scar Tip's arm from his shoulder.
His fingers closed around the end of an arrow and slowly he began to draw it.
Fitting it onto the string seemed to take forever and the constant splashing and shrieking as the fight continued only made it all the more difficult to concentrate. Atreus did not have a plan as such, he was mostly going to wait for an opening, fire, and hope for the best. He held no delusion about downing on of the monsters.
If they could survive multiple hits from his mother's frost axe then he doubted his regular arrows would provide the killing blow.
Pulling on the bowstring slightly, Atreus began to slowly creep back to the edge of the reed bed.
Faye was still in control of the fight. She was keeping her enemies off balance, knocking one down or stunning it; she would then turn and unleash her fury on the other, only to then change target, preventing them from overwhelming her with numbers. Bleach Skull and Scar Tip had the size advantage, but they couldn't hope to match her swift movements or the freezing bite of her axe. Slowly, with strategy and precise footwork she was wearing the monstrous duo down.
Ignoring the protest of his muscles, Atreus aimed his bow at Scar Tip, waiting for the right moment. Bleeding from several open wounds the monster was slowly turning the waters of the pond black and murky. Hissing at Faye it gave a half-hearted swipe at the woman, only to draw its arm back as the axe came close to severing off its fingers.
Scar Tip had almost had enough, and was preparing to leave when Atreus's arrow struck its backside. Hissing, more in confusion than in pain, the beast forgot about Faye as she swung her axe at Bleach Skull, and found itself staring at the small form of a seven year old child.
The monster did not know much about the woman or her powers but it was quickly able to deduce that the boy was the warrior's offspring and killing it would hurt her far more than either it or Bleach Skull had been able to accomplish.
Roaring in triumph, Scar Tip raced towards Atreus on all fours, aiming its black antler straight at the child.
"Mother!" Atreus yelled as he tried to fit a fresh arrow onto his bowstring.
Turning away from Bleach Skull, Faye saw the danger and threw the Leviathan axe towards the charging beast. The magical weapon hit, but failed to bring down Scar Tip.
The monster was almost upon him.
Levelling his bow, Atreus let lose his second arrow and once more it hit, only to bounce harmlessly off the creatures hide.
Ignoring Bleach Skull, Faye gave chase, only for the first beast to throw itself at her. With inhuman strength she wrestled with the monster, striking it repeatedly in desperation, trying to break its hold on her.
His third arrow now was ready on his bowstring but Atreus didn't have time to aim. Scar Tip was here and while the boy would have liked nothing more than to casually leap aside and avoid being impaled just as his mother had, his legs refused to obey him, becoming rooted to the ground.
He was going to die.
Closing his eyes tight, Atreus hoped it wouldn't hurt too much.
The child never felt a thing.
Kratos blindsided Scar Tip, knocking the monster of course and away from his son. Crashing into the pond's waters the God of war rose with a roar of fury and began racing towards the fallen monster.
With a multitude of injuries slowing it down the beast never had a chance to rise up out of the pond's waters. Bringing both his arms down on Scar Tip's back, Kratos felt the creature's spine shatter on impact, ending any and all threat from the monster. But it wasn't enough for him. So he did it again. And again. The creature's organs ruptured inside its chest, its heart ceased to function and life vanished from the beast's body. The pond's waters around him became black with blood as he continued to reduce the once fearsome nightmare to a broken mess. With a final stomp, Kratos ground Scar Tip's skull to dust. It wasn't enough but it would have to suffice.
Abandoning the dead beast Kratos rushed towards Faye who was standing atop of the fallen Bleach Skull, driving the Leviathan axe into the squealing beast's neck. The cut wasn't very clean and while the black blood pooled from the wound into the pond, the monster still writhed under her. Adjusting her footing on Bleach Skull's back, she swung the axe again, severing the head from the rest of the body.
"Faye I-" Kratos was ignored as the mother jumped from the corpse's back and ran towards her son, still standing at the edge of the pond. His eyes now open the boy stood in silent awe of what his parents had accomplished against two terrifying monsters, then he saw the look of fury on his advancing mother's face and felt fresh fear.
Faye's arms shot out as she knelt in front of him, gripping the child's shoulders. "I told you to stay hidden!"
"I had to help." Atreus tried to argue but a strong shake ended it.
"And what would have happened if you had been killed? Do you have any idea what that would do to me?"
"I'm sorry Mother." No longer able to look at his mother's face Atreus stared over her shoulder at his father who was watching them from a safe distance. His expression as ever was unreadable.
Pulling her son into a tight embrace, Atreus tried to fight back the tears that welled up in his eyes. He didn't mind crying in front of her, but his father…
"You have to listen to me, when danger comes I know best and you do exactly as I say understand?"
He nodded into her shoulder. The tears were almost free now, and still his father stared.
"Say it." Faye whispered.
"I'll do what you say." Atreus managed, blinking furiously.
"Good." Standing, Faye stretched out her arm and once more the Leviathan axe flew towards her hand. "We're going home." She announced and began marching away from the pond's carnage.
Hiding his face, Atreus tried to wipe his tears without his father noticing.
The walk home was silent. Faye took the lead. Atreus followed her, trying to process all that he felt and thought. Kratos stalked behind them, completing the trio.
It was only when their house came into sight did the silence break.
"Atreus hit a duck today."
Surprised at the words, it took the boy a second to realise they were not meant for him. Turning to look behind him, he watched his father's reaction.
It wasn't much, but Atreus appreciated the acknowledgement from his mother, and while he could have boasted that he had scored multiple hits on the monsters, he was tactful enough to avoid that conversation.
For a minute more nothing was said.
"Go inside boy." Kratos ordered when their home was within spitting distance. Knowing he had no ground on which to argue, Atreus pushed open the large wooden door to their home and entered. "Close the door."
Knowing whatever was going to be said was something he shouldn't hear, Atreus did as his father wished, then pressed himself up as close to the door as he could and listened.
"Faye, those monsters, what were they?"
"Something from far up north, I've never heard of any of them leaving the black forest."
"Will more come?" His father asked and for a moment Atreus thought there was a touch of worry in his tone.
"No. It was an accident that the pair we saw made it this far. I'd be surprised if you ever saw another."
Atreus sighed in silent relief; if he never saw another one of those things for as long as he lived he would die a happy old man.
"Faye I'm sorry that I didn't-"
Kratos was cut off, and for a second the boy wished he could see as well as hear.
"He's safe. That's all that matters."
The sound of his father's approaching footsteps spurred him into action. Moving as quickly and quietly as possible, Atreus raced to the opposite side of their house towards his bed. He had almost made it when the door opened and his parents entered.
Sitting down on his bed, the boy kept his gaze towards the floor as the heavy footsteps of his father drew near.
"Boy." Looking up, Atreus stared into the unreadable face of his father, he always looked as if he was angry, and yet that couldn't actually be true, could it? "You will listen to your mother next time."
Kratos shifted his weight and for a second the boy thought that his father might have worn a different expression on his face, but it was gone, replaced by that single same expression. "It was commendable that you tried to help today."
Was that praise?
"But do as she says boy, your mother knows what is best."
"Good." Atreus expected his father to leave, but still he stood over him. "Go on and help her defeather your duck."
Springing from his bed, Atreus moved towards his mother, unsure what to think of what his father had just told him, hadn't he just repeated what she had already said? Did he think he was stupid and needed to be told twice?
Atreus was happiest when it was just him and his mother.