GatheringbyAlex De Kok©
"Alaric? You're planning to attend the Gathering, I expect?"
He glanced at his mother, surprised, but there was nothing except gentle parental curiosity on her face. He nodded. "Yes, Mama. I am. Jandol and I are going together."
"You are adult this year. You will be able to choose from any woman who accepts you. Not like last Gathering, when only the Host-wives were available to you."
He nodded. "I know, Mama. Perhaps I'll find a wife. Or wives." He grinned. "I think just one to begin with."
Hana Torban laughed, smiling at her son. "Yes, just one at first. Your father and I were married for six years before he married Arli."
He hesitated, but Hana seemed relaxed and open, and he wanted to know. "Mama?"
"Did you resent Arli at all?"
"No, never. Your father and I had agreed before he ever approached her. She's a good friend, as well as my co-wife." A grin flickered across Hana's face, and she eyed her son. "The three of us have a lot of pleasure in bed together. I pray that such happiness comes to you as well." She frowned.
"A problem, Mama?"
Hana shook her head. "No, at least I don't think so. You know that Jandol's mother and I are two of the Leori Host-wives this Gathering?"
"Yes, I knew that."
"It will not embarrass you?"
He stared at her, surprised. "Mama, of course not! Father and I are proud that you are chosen, and I envy the young men brought to manhood by you. Or by Ellora Hel, for that matter."
"As Host-wives, we will be available to you and Jandol, you know? As well as the first-time Initiates?"
He nodded. "I know. But Mama, you are so beautiful that I'll never be able to get near you."
Hana laughed, a merry sound. "Flatterer!" She sobered. "As well that you've had me already."
"Aye, Mama, and a wonderful memory it is."
"For me, too, son. For me, too. You remind me of your father; a lovely weapon and the skill to wield it."
"Why, thank you, Mama."
Hana stood, and came across to him, bending to give him a quick,light, kiss. "I must go and help Arli with the evening meal. Jeni has some math problems from school. Will you help her?"
The five of them sat to dinner together. Jad Torban, Alaric's father, sat at the head of the table, Hana to his right, Arli to his left. Jeni, Alaric's half-sister, sat to her mother's left, opposite Alaric.
"You attend the Gathering, son?" said Jad as they relaxed after the meal.
"Aye, father, I do."
"Yes, tomorrow. Jandol and I are going together."
Jad nodded. "There is a difference this year. The first day of the Gathering, tomorrow, coincides with the Festival of Asala. You know what that means?"
Alaric laughed and nodded. "Aye. Anyone at the Gathering tomorrow, or indeed, anyone outside of their own home, must go naked, baring themselves before the Goddess."
"You still go?"
Alaric grinned. "What better way to see the girls, father?"
Jad nodded, then grinned. "You will be allowed footwear, and something to indicate clan colours, but that is all."
"Alaric?" said Hana. "I have red and gold ribbons, our Leori colours. Perhaps tied around your upper arm?"
He nodded. "Please, Mama." He frowned. "Do any of you know why we go naked on Asala's Festival?"
"I did some research in the Library at Landing," said Arli. "Apparently back on old Terra, some six or seven hundred years ago, there was a name day celebrated at about this time of year, in the summer. Asala is a goddess of purity, and the elders of the temple thought it only fitting that she should be worshipped by people who brought nothing save themselves to her, and a yearly festival was thought to be apt, to remind everyone, including those who do not attend the temples.
"It still continues in the temples, that the congregation worship naked, but outside the temples, only the Festival requires that we go unclothed." Arli grinned. "I think it no accident that Gathering coincides with the Festival."
"Are we going tomorrow?" said Jeni.
"I must, as I am warden this year," said Jad. "And of course Hana serves as Host-wife. Arli?"
"Do you want to go tomorrow, Jeni?" Arli smiled at her daughter.
Jeni nodded. "Yes, please!"
"Very well, we'll go tomorrow. Be sure you wash behind your ears, if you're going to be naked."
"Mama!" said Jeni, exasperated, and they all laughed.
When Alaric and Jandol arrived at the Gathering site, there was plenty of activity. The Host-wives compound was playing host to its full complement; the ten from their own clan, the Leori, and two each from the others, the Jikali, Tempori, Bruini, Peluri and Hinazi, so that there were twenty of them. Traditionally, the first day was spent in allowing the women to meet and get to know one another, and Alaric knew that his mother and Ellora were looking forward to this.
The main Gathering area was busy. Various tents had been erected, some as commissaries, some as dormitories, some as taverns. There were corrals for horses on the outskirts, with the younger members of the Leori clan acting as herders. Alaric and Jandol left their mounts and walked into the Gathering area, acutely conscious of their nakedness.
"It felt strange, riding with only boots on," said Jandol, grinning.
"That it did," said Alaric. He took a deep breath. "Very well, my friend, let's go and get our psidents."
As adults, and unmarried, Alaric and Jandol were issued with psidents, medallions coded to their genetic structure, glowing softly blue. If they came near to a girl who also carried a psident, the psidents exchanged data, and if the two were genetically compatible, each of their psidents changed colour, to a soft gold. Incompatibility resulted in the psidents turning red. The range of the psidents was about two paces, and they were only active if held in the hand. On the cord, around the neck, they remained inert.
When they came back out into the Gathering after getting their psidents, there were people everywhere; young, old, middle-aged, children.
Lots of girls. Girls all wearing their brightest smiles, shoes or boots, and nothing else but clan colours, save in some cases a touch -- or more -- of colour in their cheeks. There too, to see them, admire them, also dressed in nothing but boots or sandals and smiles, sometimes embarrassed smiles, were the young men.
Alaric and Jandol were no exception. Alaric had feared that the sight of lovely girls, lovely naked girls, might result in his embarrassing himself, and the girls, by getting an unwanted erection, but apart from a twitch or two at first, he managed to stay dormant. He gazed around, a half-smile on his face. Jandol touched his arm.
"Isn't that Nanora?" he said, a grin threatening to split his face, pointing to the other side of the space they were in. Alaric looked, and couldn't help the grin coming to his own face.
"Yes, I think it is. Let's go and say hello."
She saw them coming, and even from twenty metres away they could see her flush, but she was smiling and there was welcome on her face.
"Hello, Alaric, Jandol. Go on, tell me. I look stupid."
Alaric and Jandol shook their heads.
"No way, do you look stupid," said Jandol.
"Stupid, no," said Alaric. "Stunning, yes. An absolute dream, yes. A vision guaranteed to excite any male from twelve to one hundred and more, yes. Stupid, never."
"I feel as if I was even more naked than I am," said Nanora.
"You look lovely, Nan. Truly. I presume you're undressed to interest we mere males?" Alaric raised his brows in amused query, noting the psident around Nan's neck.
Nanora laughed. "I blush to admit it, but you're right of course. The Gathering is intended for that, isn't it? And don't tell me you two aren't looking for girls."
"Of course we are," said Jandol. "And we're talking to the best-looking one we've seen."
"Well, thank you for that," said Nanora. "Have to go, I'm afraid. I promised to meet one or two of the other girls. If I see any nice girls from the other clans I'll tell them to look out for you. Bye for now."
"Bye, Nan." Alaric and Jandol watched her walk away, the neat tick-tock of her bottom almost mesmerising.
"A vision, Jandol," said Alaric, with a sigh, as he tore his eyes away from the departing Nanora.
"Truly, so, Alaric. And about to be spoiled, I fear. Isn't that Claus, and two Hinazi girls? They have to be Hinazi, with those moccasin boots. No one else wears them."
"Yeah, I think you're right. Claus is bound to say something to upset them, so how about we try to rescue them? That's if they need rescuing. I somehow doubt it, seeing that they're Hinazi."
Jandol laughed. "Lead on."
The two young men strolled towards the trio. The Hinazi girls were blonde, waist-length hair tied back with green and white ribbons, Hinazi colours, but otherwise hanging free. They wore knee-length moccasin boots, but like Alaric and Jandol, were otherwise naked, bare breasts on tantalising display.
As Alaric and Jandol moved closer, Claus must have said something to displease the girls, because Alaric and Jandol could see them stiffen, and the hand of one dropped to where she would normally carry a belt-knife, but the other put her hand out to stop her companion, shaking her head.
"Go ahead," they heard Claus say, "what can you do to frighten me? You're just girls, and girls don't scare me."
"They should, Claus. They're Hinazi, and Hinazi are warriors," said Alaric. "Anyway, just think of Nanora and mind your manners."
Claus stiffened, and seemed on the point of saying, or doing, something Alaric was sure he would regret later, but bit off an oath, turned on his heel and stalked away. The two girls turned to Alaric, cautious, curious. He spread his hands wide, and bowed.
"Ladies, allow me to apologise on behalf of Clan Leori. That," he said, indicating the departing Claus, "is Claus Lan. He's a fool and a bully, and I have little doubt that had he gone any further, even without our presence here, he would have regretted it very quickly indeed."
The girls both nodded, glancing at each other. "Yes, he would," said the slightly taller blonde, with such quiet and simple conviction in her tone that neither Alaric nor Jandol doubted her for a moment.
"May I introduce us?" said Alaric. "I am Alaric Torban, and this is my very good friend Jandol Hel. May we offer you refreshment in the commissary? A small token of how Clan Leori prefers to treat its guests."
The Hinazi girls looked at each other for a moment, then nodded. The taller one spoke again, her voice soft, slightly husky. "We would be pleased to accept your hospitality. I am Luana Haan, and this is my half-sister, Malisa."
Alaric and Jandol bowed to the girls, who dipped in polite half-curtsy. Alaric was trying not to stare at the naked charms before him, but Luana caught his eye and grinned.
"Look your fill," she said. "We are, and we didn't come today to be ignored! Anyway, we're quite proud of our bodies, aren't we, Mal?" Her sister nodded, grinning in her turn. "So where is this commissary, then?"
"This way." Alaric offered his arm, and Luana took it, just as her sister took Jandol's.
"Will there be any fruit juice?" said Luana. "It's too warm for tea or java."
"I'm sure there will," said Alaric, leading the way with Luana as Jandol and Malisa fell in behind. Alaric was in no hurry to relinquish the company of a girl as attractive as Luana and made no attempt to hasten the pace, and Luana seemed happy to accept it. In her low-heeled boots she was a bare half head shorter than Alaric, with an easy stride that all but matched his own.
"Who's Nanora?" she said as they strolled.
Alaric laughed. "She's one of the Leori girls, a friend of ours."
"Not yet, just a good friend."
"What did she do to whatshisname, Claus?"
"Put him on his back in front of a crowd of his - I was going to say friends, but I don't think he has any - in front of a crowd of his cronies."
"Good for her."
"Definitely, particularly as she's barely half his size."
"Even better." Luana pointed. "Is that one of the Leori Host-wives? Oh, she's waving to us, or is it to you?"
"Probably me." He gave Luana a wry grin. "It's my mother."
"Your mother? Oh my." Luana laughed, then squeezed his arm. "You'll never believe this."
"The two Hinazi Host-wives? They're our mothers, Mal's and mine."
Alaric laughed. "Another of the Leori Host-wives is Jandol's mother."
"That has to be one of the most amazing coincidences I've ever heard." Luana paused, drawing Alaric to a halt, turning to her sister. "Did you hear that, Mal? Alaric and Jandol's mothers are two of the Leori Host-wives."
Malisa smiled. "Jandol was just telling me who that Leori was who waved to us. Your mother, Alaric?"
"Indeed so, and over there, but not looking our way, is Jandol's mother, Ellora."
"This is looking like fate, Alaric, because you see that Hinazi woman she's talking to?" Alaric nodded. "That's Malisa's mother, Lila. Past her, but obscured a little by the corner of the tent, is my mother, Alna." Luana shook her head, then grinned up at Alaric. "We were meant for each other."
A shock went through him. Perhaps? Aloud he said, "I can think of many worse fates, but few better."
Luana's smile faded and she stared at him, then nodded. "I want to know you better," she said, "and yes, I do mean in every way. Today, tonight, we just talk, probably, maybe share a meal, but we promised to see our mothers later, because their Host-wife duties begin tomorrow and we won't have time later. That's today. Tomorrow, I want to explore, maybe camp out overnight, see some of the territory around here." Luana stepped close and gave Alaric a quick, light kiss. "You and Jandol lead the way. I want a word with Mal. It will only take a moment."
Alaric signalled to Jandol, and they moved out of earshot. Alaric glanced across, but Luana and Malisa were deep in conversation. Whatever Luana was saying it seemed to be striking a responsive chord in her sister, because Malisa was smiling and nodding. The men paused, waiting.
"Rather attractive girls, don't you think, Jandol?" Alaric grinned at his friend.
"More than just attractive, Alaric, as you well know."
They both nodded. "I'll go with stunning," said Alaric. "And I've rarely seen such beautiful breasts."
Jandol laughed. "It's true we don't often see such a display, although I hadn't realised Nanora was so nicely made. She looked stunning, too. If it wasn't that we marry outside the clan, I think I could be tempted. As it is, if I get the chance to bed her, I want it!"
Alaric nodded. "Me, too. Ah, they're coming."
"Alaric," said Luana. "Tomorrow, is there somewhere the four of us could go, somewhere we can be alone, maybe swim, somewhere we can spend the night?" She grinned. "Outdoors, preferably. After all, we are Hinazi!"
Alaric looked at Jandol. "The pool?"
Jandol nodded. "Ideal."
"There's a little place in the hills, a pool, and there's a little meadow. There's grazing for the horses, and the pool is fed by both a stream and a hot spring, so it's very pleasant for a swim. We get drinking water from above the hot spring. I've never been there overnight, but I think it would be ideal. It's on the edge of the Barrens, so it's a little on the wild side away from the meadow."
Luana looked at Malisa, who nodded. "It sounds ideal," said Luana. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you like. If you want to be on the road soon, we could meet at the turn-off, north of here, about five klicks. Saves Jandol and me coming all the way here from home."
"Sounds fine by me. Mal?"
"Yes, sounds good. We take the trail north, five klicks, and there's a junction? We wait there if you're not there?"
"That's it. Is that okay? If we're there first, we'll head in and meet you. If we both leave at the same time, say an hour after sun-up? Time to break fast without needing to hurry."
"It sounds fine. Now, that commissary? I'm thirsty."
"Just over there. See? Come on, we'll see if there's a table."
The commissary was busy, mostly with young couples like themselves. They looked around, but couldn't see any vacant tables. A familiar face caught his eye and he was about to speak when Malisa took Luana's arm.
"Isn't that Hari?" she said. "He won't mind sharing the table."
"He might," said Luana. "Have you seen that girl he's with? She's lovely."
"Is this Hari that young man with the dark hair, over there?" said Alaric.
Luana nodded. "Yes, that's Hari. He's our cousin. His father is our father's brother."
"Let's ask him," said Alaric. "I don't think his companion will mind, provided we don't outstay our welcome."
"You know her, don't you?"
"Yes, we do," said Jandol. "That's Nanora, the girl we told you about."
"She's the one that put that bully Claus on his back?"
Alaric nodded, and Luana grinned.
"We're definitely asking if they'll share, now. Come on, I'll ask him."
Hari was in earnest conversation with Nanora, and looked up as the four paused beside the table, but his look of polite enquiry was replaced by a broad grin.
"Lu! And Mal!" He turned to Nanora. "Nanora, there's someone I'd like you to meet. My cousins, Luana and Malisa Haan. I'm sorry, I don't know their companions."
"That's all right, I do. Hari, may I in my turn introduce my friends Alaric Torban and Jandol Hel?"
"May we sit with you? There are no free tables?" said Luana.
"Fruit juice?" said Alaric. Luana and Malisa nodded. He turned to Hari and Nan, eyebrows raised but they indicated their own half-full glasses. About to see if there was a waitress free, he was surprised by a touch on his arm. Arli was there, a tray under her arm.
"What can I fetch you?" she said.
"Four fruit juices, please, Arli."
"Will you introduce me to your companions. Obviously, I know Nanora and Jandol."
"This is Luana Haan, and her sister Malisa. This gentleman is Hari, but I don't know his family name?"
"Mandor," said Hari,
"Hari Mandor. Jandol and Nan you know. Ladies, Hari, may I present my mother's co-wife, and my good friend, Arli Torban."
There was a general murmur of greetings, and smiles all round.
"Arli?" said Alaric. "I didn't know you were serving?"
Arli grinned. "I didn't dodge quickly enough. Four fruit juices coming up."
Hari and Nan shuffled over a little and the others sat, Luana with Alaric, Malisa with Jandol. There was silence for a moment, until Luana spoke.
"Call me Nan, please."
"Nan. I was just going to say, Nan, that Mal and I met your friends when they came to rescue us from a mutual adversary."
Nanora frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"Claus," said Malisa, and Nanora's face cleared.
"Ah," she said. "Was he making a fool of himself again?"
"About to, I think, but Alaric and Jandol were in time to save him." Luana gave an innocent smile and Nanora laughed. "Alaric tells me you flattened him?"
"I was lucky."
"Rubbish," said Jandol. "I saw it. As neat a step-over as I've seen. It was poetry, Nan."
"Thank you," said Nanora, "but I still think I was lucky."
"Suit yourself," said Jandol. "I know what I saw."
Arli chose that moment to serve the fruit juice, so that there was general chaos for a few moments. Settled, Luana lifted her glass and took a sip.
"Very nice. Thank you, Alaric, and thank Arli - that was her name, wasn't it? Thank Arli for us."
"I will. Tomorrow?"
"What about tomorrow?" said Luana.
"Bring a weapon of some sort. Highly unlikely that you'll need it, but we'll be on the edge of the Barrens and it's better to be safe."
"Going somewhere interesting, Lu?" said Hari.
"A place Alaric and Jandol know. We're going to spend the day out there, camp overnight, swim, just enjoy ourselves."