The Hunt for Gods (1st ch)

Kinda long, but would love any sort of feedback from someone other than my sister lol

Chapter 1: The Handmaiden

Alstead’s cold winter’s night was like any other and beautiful as always. Fresh snow blanketed the cobblestone streets and buildings of the bustling city. The night sky was clear, the two moons shining bright with glittering stars as far as the eye could see. Wild children were running amuck without a worry or care as they scooped up snow to launch at one another. They danced and bounced through the crowds recklessly, laughing and shouting. One collided with a palace guard branding the kingdom’s forest green and gold colors, escorting two females. The child quickly earned themself a scolding fit for a soldier.

“Luna,” Bryn groaned, tripping over her feet as the Princess pulled her around the market. “You are going to be late for the banquet. It’s in a few hours, and you still need to get ready.” Behind them, the guard caught her attention, swearing beneath his breath as he glowered at the child running off. His annoyance could not have been more apparent when he looked back at them. Either from the reckless child or from having to watch two females shop. Perhaps both.

“I only need a few more things. I promise.” Luna insisted, eyes scanning the stalls.

“You said that three vendors ago, Luna. How about this? You give me a list of what you need, and I can come back to get them.” She offered.

“It will be fine, Bryn! Besides, by the time you can get away from your duties, I will be available to come with you. There is no need for you to go without me.” Her lips curled down, and she pulled Luna to a stop.

“Then why does this have to be done now? If you are late, your father will blame me, and your brother will not be happy with you. This is important to him.” She pleaded with her unreasonable friend. Her words only fell on deaf ears as Luna dragged her towards the next stall of interest. While Luna chatted away with the merchant, a pair of siblings enthralled Bryn, arguing over a toy. No one else seemed to mind them, and none appeared to be their parents. They were too young to be on their own; their horns were barely more than nubs sprouting from their temples.

“Give it back! It’s not yours!” One of them cried.

“Mama said to share! It’s my turn to play with it now.” The other demanded, holding it out of reach before running off with the toy and leaving their sibling to fume in frustration.

“I hope you get taken to the Hallows!” The child bellowed as they chased after their sibling. A shudder ran through Bryn. The Hallows was a terrible story told to children to ensure they behaved. Whoever created the horrific tale did an excellent job scaring countless children. She included many moons ago.

“It is just a children’s tale. It’s not real.” She murmured, catching Luna’s attention.

“What’s not real?” She had a new parcel added to her basket.

“Let me carry that.” Bryn quickly tried to reach for it, but Luna danced out of reach and held the basket away from her, waving her hand dismissively. It was just like the two children and the toy just moments ago. “Lunafreya, let me do my job. Better yet, let’s go home so you can do yours.” It filled Bryn with relief when Luna responded with a pout. She waved a hand eagerly to open a portal for them all. Looping an arm through Luna’s, Bryn pulled her through the portal with the guard in tow. They went from the busy city markets to the palace courtyard within moments. It was as close to the palace that was allowed. They permitted portals within the castle walls only to leave. Portals were traceable and a hazard to the royal family’s safety.

There wasn’t anything spectacular about the castle of Alstead. It was like any other, made of stone, surrounded by greenery and wide-open courtyards. Erected during the Giants’ reign centuries ago, the castle became a recent addition in an era when the cold and snow were unheard of. Once upon a time, a grand temple stood here that later became a castle when the fae settled these lands. It was the only part of the palace that gave it personality. Maybe the castle sparked no interest in Bryn because its walls were all she knew. This land and people were all she had ever seen. She only read books about the other regions and their kingdoms, and there were too few in the libraries and shops.

“You should be happy for Prince Fenn. Or at least show more enthusiasm.” She ushered Luna through the grand, empty halls. The low temperatures did not affect the fae of the Hinterlands, but there was something about these halls that left a chill in her bones she had never learned to ignore after all these decades. Instead, she’d prefer to take the servants’ corridors, but that would be wholly inappropriate when escorting the Princess.

“I am happy for him!” Luna insisted. “I have known this union would finally come for a long time, but it doesn’t mean I have to be happy about him leaving. Princess Thea is a perfect match for him.”

“He won’t leave forever. It will only be temporary, but you can always visit him. Gamtrie is hardly far at all. Even by carriage, as I know, you prefer the scenic route instead.” Bryn’s comment earned a frown from the Princess.

“I have to travel by carriage, Bryn. Yes, the scenery is nicer than a portal, but-”

“But you have people to open portals for you when and wherever you like. You do not have to travel by carriage. You want an excuse to collect your plants and herbs.” She interjected with a sigh. Luna puffed her cheeks out.

“That isn’t fair, and you know it. You know exactly why I collect plants and herbs.” Luna spoke in a hushed tone, her blue eyes watching the guard that followed tirelessly behind them. He paid no attention to their conversation or was good at leading them to believe so. It was the only privacy a princess could ask for, and it wasn’t much.

It was common knowledge that Princess Lunafreya of Alstead was born without magic, though it was rare for such a thing to happen. The continent of Ostwynn was full of magic that was ever-changing. Yet, Luna never let that stop her. She practiced another type of magic, albeit unethical and prohibited within Ostwynn. The Hinterlands included. Only Luna’s brother Navin and Bryn knew of her practice. Navin was the second eldest among the royal children, with Luna the youngest. Fenn was the eldest sibling and heir to the throne.

When they reached Luna’s chambers, the guard took his post outside the door. She breathed a sigh of relief as his overbearing presence finally detached from them. They were finally alone. Luna carried her basket off to a table, pulling out each item while Bryn stepped into the adjoining room to draw a bath. When she was first hired as Luna’s handmaiden, she was much younger than most when beginning their apprenticeships. Most fae start at sixteen, while she was barely eleven. She remembered thinking the room was as big as her family’s home. Of course, it wasn’t, but as a child, everything seemed surreal. It wasn’t normal for children to begin their apprenticeships as young as she did, but the King and Queen thought it would be better for Luna to have a companion her age.

Kneeling beside the large tub, she dipped my hand beneath the water to test the temperature. For as long as she could remember, Bryn’s mother taught her how to tend to a house and people, hoping she could gain a high-level apprenticeship. She wasn’t sure if her mother had planned for her to become a handmaiden to a princess or was just lucky. Her mother worked for nobles, and she had many fond memories, learning countless tricks from her and other servants to make specific jobs more manageable, such as filling a bath without breaking her back to carry one bucket after another. Bryn removed her hand from the water and reached for a few jars of oils stored neatly on a shelf to add a few drops to the bathwater. Lavender for relaxation, rose geranium for the skin, and a few drops from other oils she couldn’t bother to keep track of by now.

“What should I wear to the banquet?” She rose to her feet as Luna stepped into the bathing chamber, smoothing out the front of her simple dress before reaching for the ties on Luna’s far more expensive one.

“I was thinking of a blue or purple dress,” Bryn replied, working her nimble fingers through each knot until the fabric came loose.

“Gamtrie’s colors?” Luna clarified, sliding the dress off herself and settling into the bath with a soft hum escaping her.

“I think it would be most appropriate. You are celebrating the marriage but also welcoming Princess Thea into your home and family.” The two were sisters by marriage now. Luna waved a hand dismissively at her, so she left the room to find a dress. It was never a simple task to find a dress in a closet the size of her bedchambers just across the hall. One of the many perks of being a handmaiden to the princess, she didn’t have to live with the other servants or share a room.

“We’ll have to get you a new dress for the upcoming ceremony,” Bryn called out. Fenn and Thea had already wed in Gamtrie a few days ago. It was a grand ceremony that invited both kingdoms of the Hinterlands to attend. It was her first time in the sister kingdom. It was custom for there to be two separate ceremonies for a royal wedding. The first was to be held at the bride’s kingdom, while the second, smaller ceremony was to be held at the groom’s kingdom, where the bride was to remain. Fenn was the Crown Prince of Alstead, but King Avalon had no plans to step down from the throne yet. Thus, Fenn had decided he’ll spend time in Gamtrie with his new wife to learn more about her and her home.

“Why can’t I wear the same dress from the first ceremony? Fenn and Thea have already wed, and the people won’t even know. They hardly pay me any mind.” She rolled her eyes and shook her head at the notion. That was unacceptable. She could not allow the Princess of Alstead to attend such an important event wearing the same gown a week prior.

Sifting through Luna’s closet, Bryn came across a familiar dress. The purple gown, she often referred to it as. She pulled it out to admire, as she often did in her friend’s wardrobe. The style of the dress was nothing extravagant compared to the rest. It was a standard shape and style, but it didn’t fit Luna’s tastes. She preferred conservative clothing that covered most of her skin. This dress was open in the back with a diamond shape cut out of the fabric. She slid her fingers down the sheer fabric of the lavender sleeves before placing the dress back. It was by far her favorite dress, but it didn’t belong to her, and she most likely would never see it worn by Luna. So, she left it in the closet to collect more dust.

She then came across a cobalt-blue dress accented in gold. She pulled it out to inspect it and smiled. It was perfect. It was a thicker material and more modest than the purple dress. The bodice had a thick layer and design of gold lace decorating the chest that crawled up to the shoulders. The fabric on the shoulders came to a slight point, with the gold lace tapering down the sleeves. On the skirt was a layer of sheer gold fabric over the blue that gave it the illusion that it was brighter, finished with thick gold stitching. Bryn knew Luna wasn’t a fan of the darker colors, but they suited her well. She made every color look good.

Scooping up the dress gently, she carried it off into the bathing chamber and laid it out on a nearby chair. Luna was lathering her milk skin with soap and humming softly to herself. Noticing Bryn’s return, she turned her attention to her and arched her brows at the sight of the dress.

“It’s been some time since I have seen that dress.” Her polite way of saying it would have never been her first choice. Probably not her second or third choice either.

“I know you don’t love the darker colors, but this dress is perfect for tonight’s banquet. I’ve decided you will wear this.”

“And what will you wear?”

Bryn frowned at the ridiculous question. “What does it matter what I wear?”

Luna leaned against the tub and waved a hand lazily. “Well, you’ll be at the banquet, and so will Navin. Maybe wear something a little nice for him.”

“I am a servant,” she scoffed, hands propped on her hips. “I will wear this. Me being at the banquet is to serve you and do my job. Nothing else.” Besides, she didn’t own a decent dress other than her uniforms and aprons. She then reached for a towel and unfolded it for Luna.

“I could talk to my father. I see no reason you can’t join us. Navin has been courting you for over a year now and is very serious about you. Not only that, but you grew up in the castle with us! You are family.” Luna insisted, snatching the towel as she stood. Bryn offered a hand to steady her as she climbed out of the tub.

“You may consider me family, but I am just your handmaiden to your parents, the King and Queen . I do not belong at the table with you.” Another dismissive wave from Luna, who dried herself while Bryn drained the water.

Bryn then prepped Luna for the event, first with hair, then makeup, and the dress. Her caramel-colored hair was styled and pinned into an updo. She utterly detested such hairstyles for the sole reason of how long it took to maneuver hair around horns. It was for that reason she never styled her hair into an updo. So long as it was out of the way, she couldn’t care less how it looked.

Moonshine fae were the only fae known for having horns. They grew from the temples and followed the curve of the head, curling up just behind pointed ears. They had a scaly pattern but were smooth as stone and iridescent. It was typical for warriors and soldiers to carve their achievements into their horns, but there were no wars to wage or battles to be won. The Hinterlands have been in an era of peace ever since the fae chased out the Giants. However, there was another way for soldiers to mark their status and achievements, such as their hair. Reserved only for active soldiers and retired, renowned fae was short hair. In history books, she recalled monarchs painted with short hair. Both of Luna’s brothers were active soldiers. Fenn was the Alsteadean General, while Navin was the Captain of the Guard. When she had first arrived at the castle, both princes were young and still in training. Navin was at the start of his training, while Fen was already moving through the ranks to become General. Having grown up watching the two princes, she often longed to learn how to fight and wield a sword of her own, but she had long accepted the day would never come to pass.

Bryn had earned herself the silent treatment as she and a guard escorted Luna to the banquet hall. Luna had tried once again to convince her to wear something else to impress Navin but to no avail. She wore a clean uniform with her silver hair partially tied back from her face. Luna childishly ignored her, upset that she couldn’t dress her friend up. However, Bryn wasn’t a guest at this feast and never will be. She had told Luna countless times that she had a job to do, but she kept to herself that she was afraid of the King deep down.

The banquet hall was one room original to the temple within the castle. She could tell not only by the unique architecture but also by the stone. The aged stone had a different color from the rest of the grand castle. She had heard the fae who had built the castle long ago could not match the stone, so they collected a more common stone to make the grand structure. The room had high vaulted ceilings that arched into a dome above. Someone had carefully carved each pillar to mimic the Old Trees of the ancient forest that had once covered the Hinterlands long before the fae settled these lands. Long before the fae and the Giants, the land belonged to the Vana Loka. The people of the forests, as they were better known across Ostwynn. A grand forest that was the heart of their community, once known as Rosewyvern, encompassed the Hinterlands and the region Gi just south of the border.

Bryn wasn’t sure when the Giants began their reign, much less of what their rule was like. All the preserved history reiterated that they were tyrants brought down by divine punishment as an epidemic. However, as much as Ostwynn wishes to erase its history, evidence of their presence still lingered. As she looked at the pillars, she wondered if the Giants had lived peacefully alongside the Vana Loka to preserve the memory of the colossal trees that once grew here. It was the reason the moonshine fae wished to maintain the pillars. The only parts altered during the castle’s construction were the floors. Tan marble covered the ground, matching the floor of any important room within the castle.

As Luna took her place at the table, Bryn took hers along the wall beside the other handmaidens and butlers. The long table that centered the room could seat dozens of guests. At one end was the Nym family of Gamtrie. King Faran Nym sat at the foot of the table with Queen Lilea to his left. To his right, Princess Thea’s older sister, Princess Nerissa, was next in line as Faran’s heir. At the other end sat the Odora family of Alstead. King Avalon sat at the head of the table with Queen Hayle to his left and Luna beside her. To King Avalon’s right was Prince Fenn, followed by Thea and Navin. The noble families who held close ties to each kingdom sat between the two royal families.

She quickly recognized Lord and Lady Motley. With them sat Amaryllis Eilyra, Lady Corda Motley’s female lover. The two giggled and chatted with Lord Ralnor Motley, their hands intertwined atop the table. She knew them well enough, having spent much of her childhood at their estate where her parents both worked still. Nobility and royalty alike were expected to have a male and female be the heads of the house and produce an heir. However, they’re encouraged to have other romantic and sexual relationships to keep the peace. Marriage was only a contract, and love was a rarity by it.

Lord Ralnor had quite the reputation for his heritage. Ralnor’s father was a moonshine fae, while his mother was a Vana Loka. To be more specific, she was what they called a deva. The deva look much like fae, but that is where the similarities end. Deva were carnivorous creatures with a hefty appetite for flesh but have long settled for animal meat to satiate their hunger. Many did not consider deva to be very civilized but were simple people who preferred the peace of the forests. The deva had pointed ears like fae, but they were much longer and slender looking. The shape of a fae’s ear varied per race. Moonshine fae had short, pointed ears that curled upward. Although their ears were the only similarities to the fae, the deva had more in common with the moonshine fae in particular. Both they and the deva were nocturnal, allowing frequent interactions between the two peoples. Rumors claim they’re covered in markings that glow as bright as the moons themselves. From what she understood, the deva weren’t fae enough because they were too different and forced into the forests. The deva seemed more than happy to call themselves Vana Loka than fae.

Looking to Lord Ralnor, she wasn’t sure if he had any markings, if deva had such markings, to begin with. However, it was easy to tell he was not full fae. He had the long, slender ears of a deva and lacked horns. Styling his salt and peppered hair must be easy without them, but he always kept it simple by tying it away from his face whenever she saw him. He had lavender-colored eyes with slitted pupils like a feline that watched everything with just as much curiosity. The sun has never once touched his pale skin, same as everyone else in the Hinterlands. His wife, however, was pureblood fae. She had regal white hair that was seen amongst most moonshine fae. Her silver-blue eyes always held a harsh, icy gaze despite her friendly nature. Despite the wide, giddy smile she always wore.

Then there was Amaryllis. She was neither fae nor deva and stood out the most at the banquet. She was a dragon from Khonai, Bryn recalled. She hadn’t the slightest idea why a dragon would be so far north. Amaryllis was the most colorful in the room, regardless of what she wore. She sat in a custom-made chair to accommodate her large, leathery wings. They were teal and shimmered in the light. She could make out patches of scales along her neck and wrists in matching colors. Her skin was olive-toned, kissed by the sun, and sensitive to the cold. Tendrils of steam curled from Amaryllis’s nose and mouth when she spoke. The heart of a dragon burned hot. An everlasting flame until death, Amaryllis once told her. Her green slit pupil eyes met her stare, and she offered a toothy smile. Bryn too often forgets of her sharp canines hidden behind that pretty face.

Servants from the kitchen waltzed into the grand room with large pitchers in their hands. Along with the other handmaidens and butlers, Bryn drifted forward to collect the pitchers and began filling the goblets across the table. While serving a cup, she glimpsed Navin’s grey eyes on her as he socialized with his family. He winked at her before looking away. Fighting the urge to smile, she focused on the task at hand. King Avalon would have her head if she spilled a single drop on one of his important guests.

“Good evening.” She greeted, stepping between Navin and Thea. A gentle hand brushed against her waist as she reached for a cup to fill. Her skin tingled beneath her gown at the soft touch.

“I was hoping you would get to join us at the table, not as a servant.” Unlike his brother and father, Navin’s voice was gentle, whose voices were loud and booming as they chattered amongst themselves.

“I will tell you, just as I told your sister, I do not belong at the table with you and your family.” She reminded him in a low voice, lingering beside him. It was hard to ignore Princess Thea’s curious gaze on them as she took hold of another cup to keep herself from freely touching Navin. She heard him sigh as he withdrew his warm touch.

“You were at my wedding with Princess Luna, weren’t you?” A singsong voice questioned beside her. Bryn turned her attention to the young Princess and gave her a nod.

“Yes, milady I was.” The younger Princess of Gamtrie was lovely as she remembered her to be. She and Fenn certainly made quite the attractive pair. Her platinum hair was in loose curls cascading down her shoulders. Yellow flowers she didn’t know the name of, woven into a small braid around her head, fashioned like a crown. Her grey eyes were not dull. They were bright and full of life as she cast her gaze upon her surroundings and companions celebrating her and Fenn. Matched with her new husband, they dressed her in white to stand out from the crowds as the newlyweds.

“You seem rather friendly with them,” Thea noted, lovingly glancing at her new family. Luna smiled and waved her fingers at the two of them from across the table. “Perhaps I can expect us to become friends someday?” Bryn offered a smile and bowed her head slightly.

“It would honor me to have your companionship, Princess. Welcome to Alstead.” Her words seemed to please Thea. More than she thought they would have, at least. It was easy to forget that Thea would leave her family, friends, and home to live with Fenn one day. She will have to make new friends. Otherwise, it will be a very lonely life and rule for her.

She filled Fenn’s cup and soon reached King Avalon’s side. Despite her heart racing wildly in her chest, her pour was steady. His stony gaze burned into her, and she gritted her teeth to keep from acknowledging it. King Avalon had made it clear he disproved of Navin courting her. He, multiple times, demanded Navin find himself a female of status. A female worthy of a prince. A female other than her. Shame and anger tightened her throat as she moved to Queen Hayle and Luna. She spoke to neither, wanting to distance herself from the King. A decision she was sure she would receive an earful from Luna later.

“Bryn Dirae!” Lady Corda was waving Bryn down as if trying to stop a carriage. Wild, over the top, and completely unnecessary. Ralnor and Amaryllis ended their conversation as they looked in Bryn’s direction, pleased to have a moment of her time as she made her way towards them.

“I cannot express how thrilled we were to see you when we received our invitations to the banquet. It has been far too long since we last saw you!” Corda gushed, causing a flush to color Bryn’s cheeks. She dipped her head and reached for a cup. “You seem to do well for yourself here. Your mother talks of you often and the letters you’ve been writing to her.”

“It is lovely to see you all. Perhaps someday I can come down to the manor for a visit.” Bryn offered, watching all three of their faces light up, full of hope and determination for such a promise to come true. She’ll never hear its end if she cannot uphold her promise now. Forever to be bombarded with letters and invites until she was physically standing at their doorstep.

“We would love for you to come to visit.” Amaryllis smiled warmly. She spoke with the rich and raspy accent Bryn could never forget.

“How are the boys? I see you didn’t bring them with you.” Bryn sidestepped around the two females to stand beside Ralnor.

“I assure you they have not changed one bit after all these years.” He chortled with a wave of his cup. She reached across to fill it. “Perhaps you’d like to marry one of them! We’d get to see you much more often.” He winked. Bryn swallowed a gag at the thought. The family was kind and doting to her and her family, but she preferred to hold them at arm’s length if she could. She could never consider marrying a Motley, and nothing could convince her otherwise. With a smile plastered to her face, she slid over to the next guest.

“How thoughtful of you, Lord Ralnor, but my duties have my hands tied. I belong here at the castle.” Bryn shrugged, filling the last cup. She belonged here with Luna and Navin. So long as she had them, she couldn’t imagine leaving the castle. Handing the pitcher to a kitchen servant, she returned to her spot by the wall to continue fulfilling her much more suited role as the handmaiden.

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