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May 1, 2016

Dancing the May: an excerpt from Double Couple, Book 3 of the Schattenreich

May Day (and May Eve) continues to be a pan-European celebration that can be traced back to the Celtic celebration of Beltane, one of the high holy days of the Celtic calendar. Even though current traditions vary from country to country and according to which kind of group is doing the celebrating (i.e., pagan, non-pagan, labor activists, young adults in the throes of a romantic relationship).

Dancing maypole ladies
In Germany, the celebrations vary across the country, but usually include May Eve bonfires, dancing until after midnight (also known as 'dancing in the May') - with or without a Maypole and/or with or without traditional circle dances - and also various (ahem) fertility rites and consumption of copious amounts of food and beverages of an alcoholic nature. Historically, the Celts also included various games of prowess and challenge (e.g., Celtic Culture, A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by John C. Koch).

Birch saplings, more or less suitable for a Maibaum
In the Rhineland where I live, young men are expected to deliver a properly decorated (usually with varicolored strips of crepe paper and a wooden heart engraved with the intended's name) to their beloved. This year - leap year - the tradition reverses, and the young lady is required to deliver the tree.

Another historic tradition in Germany - although probably only dating to sometime in the nineteenth century - opinions vary - is the celebration of Walpurgisnacht (named after St. Walpurgis, a female saint who lived and died in the eighth century), the night that the witches gather (on the highest peak in the Harz Mountains) to celebrate the coming of spring.

The excerpt from Double Couple takes place at Burg Lahn during a traditional Maifest, held each year by the von der Lahns, complete with a May Queen, athletic games, a horse race, and handfasting. Of course, just a few chapters later, other things - or I should say Otherworldly things - also happen on this particular May Eve...

Book 3 of the Schattenreich series
The multiple thwopping of arrows hitting their targets rang out across the field. Heinrich stood with the other contestants, a half-dozen men and two women, practicing with their long bows. One of the guests commissioned to act as contest official bustled about importantly, pinning numbers on shirts and writing down names. When he came to Heinrich, they conferred for a moment before they agreed to pin Heinrich's number on one leg of his pants.

Heinrich had stripped his upper body of everything but a soft leather vest, and I suspected he would lose that before the contest started. I admired the sight of him, watching the muscles in his arm flex as he pulled back on his bow, taking aim. Heinrich stood out compared to the other men in the field, a wildcat among barnyard tabbies.

The crowd shouted encouragement, adding to the pageantry. Some tied ribbons or strips of cloth around contestants' arms or necks. I waited for someone to offer Heinrich such a fetish. When no one did, I hurriedly extracted a purple satin ribbon Heinrich had woven into my braid. I held it out to him.

"Luck, Heiner. Not like you really need it."

"You can never have enough luck," he said and stared at the proffered ribbon. "You want to give me your token?"

"Only if you want it."

"A favor from my favorite lady. That would be grand, chérie." He took the ribbon and tried unsuccessfully to wind it around his left arm.

"Let me." I tied the ribbon on his upper arm in a double knot so it wouldn't slip down. "Kilhian and I just had a short but interesting Ausflug in Lahn-dunum."

 He started to walk to the first peg, but stopped and turned.

"Do your thing. It's not urgent," I said and smiled.

The contest went through only four rounds of shooting but took place in the woods, three arrows each, at different distances from the targets, the distances marked with colored pegs. It was an abbreviated form of field archery, meant only for entertainment and not an 'official' competition. At Heinrich's turn each round, I produced my loudest Texas war whoop, putting even the rowdier teenagers to shame. The younger girls, challenged by my display, cheered their favorites on in a renewed frenzy of yelling.

Heinrich won by a wide margin - he had hit the yellow bull's eye at all three distances - earning good-natured catcalls and whistles from the crowd. Hagen and Elise had arrived and joined in the cheering. Heinrich strode over to me after he was declared the winner and swung me in a wide circle, laughing with joy.

"I'll collect my boon from you later, Caitie." He looked around. "This really isn't the ideal place to talk."

"I can see that. What the heck is a boon?"

"It's a Germanic tradition. A favor. A touch of your fortune."

Wondering about that momentarily chased thoughts of Dagmar Abel and Kilhian ar C'hoed away before the fear returned. Where is she and what is she planning?

Heinrich, now sporting a sleeveless T-shirt and running shorts, lined up for the long distance run, not measured in kilometers but a marked path through the forest to the large oak tree and then a sprint across the meadow. Not having the advantage of my Schattenreich wolf form to augment my speed, I didn't have a chance against all those legs with their well-defined thigh and calf muscles.

Hagen and Elise conversed a few feet from me, and I debated whether to approach them. Not that I'd be able to tell Hagen about what happened, but maybe I could couch it in code. Hagen waved me over. Elise frowned while Hagen introduced us.

"Caitlin von der Lahn, Elise Maier."

I held out my hand. Elise displayed a calculated hesitation before taking it. Her critical appraisal as Hagen enunciated my name was a stitch less than friendly. Hagen's displeasure at her behavior was barely perceptible.

"Nice to meet you, Frau Maier. You make a lovely May queen."

She nodded in haughty acknowledgement before taking Hagen's arm to lead him closer to the race about to start. I felt a touch of anger at her response, but was more irritated that I couldn't talk to Hagen. I turned away from them to watch the race.

Hagen was not so easily led.

He disengaged himself from Elise and clasped my hand as he flashed me a look I had no trouble decoding as patient suffering. Watching us, Elise's arms traveled to her hips in a peeve. I quietly harbored joy imagining Frau Maier and her queenly rump leaving Burg Lahn. The race started to loud whoops and cheers.

"You are so in trouble," I said to Hagen.

He shrugged. "I think I'll survive it."

"And I've had an interesting chat with that ar C'hoed fellow."

Hagen quickly hid his look of alarm.

"You have to play escort for a while still?" I felt a snarky smile forming, but didn't want to ruin Elise's few moments in the sun with the sexiest man on the planet. Especially since Hagen was cultivating a meaningful relationship with the May queen's father.

"The prize ceremony, opening the dance floor, and then the handfasting. Join me there?"

"Glad to."

Heinrich placed a respectable fifth. I gave him a well-deserved hug and an energetic pat on the back before he'd gotten his wind back, prompting him to chase me down.

"Can we talk now?" I asked.

"One more event, and I have to play. I'll find you, though. Don't worry."

"What event?"

"Horse racing. Want to give Bertha a run?"

"Not this time. Don't want to take a chance that she could get hurt."

"You'd be just fine. You make a fine figure on a horse."

"Are you riding Alice?"

"She needs to have her head every now and then. She's got a racer's heart."

"Like your motorcycle?"

"Like all my women," he said, grinning.

"Naughty man."

"Cheer us on?"

"Are you still going to wear my token?" I asked.

"Selbstverständlich," he said, bowing. "I have to change and saddle Alice. See you before the race?"

I went to hunt up Sebastian. I spotted him from behind - his tall erect frame was easy to see in a crowd - and veered toward him. As I drew closer, I saw who he was talking to and changed direction in a frantic motion, clenching my fists.

Dagmar Abel.

I caught my breath and began to pant. When I was safely out of range of discovery, I chanced a glimpse. Sebastian wore a concentrated and purposeful expression. He was drinking in every word Dagmar said. I couldn't - and didn't want to - see Dagmar's face.

"Hey, Cat. What's up?"

I jumped. "Gus, hey. When did you get here? Where's Anna?"

"She bowed out. I think she felt uncomfortable for some reason. Don't know."

He looked dejected. Dancing in the May was something to do with your sweetheart.

"Sign my dance card?"

He managed a grin. "Dance card? Ooh. Fancy schmantsy. Sure thing."

He put himself down for the first dance. I strained a look in Sebastian's direction again. Gus's face registered shock as he recognized Dagmar. His eyes and mine met.

I had to work to keep my shoulders from sagging in dismay. "I don't know what Sebastian had in mind by inviting her. I can't imagine any good will come of it."

"The evening would be much more pleasant without her here," Gus said.

"Is that a prophecy or a threat?"

He draped an arm around my shoulder. "Let's pretend she's not here."

"I wish I could."


excerpt from Double Couple, book 3 of The Schattenreich
Copyright Sharon Kae Reamer, 2013.
All Rights Reserved.

photo credits:

Luxor Live: Art Nouveau dancing girls via photopin (license)

fagedajorda-2 via photopin (license)