We reached a big clearing. The music bounced between the trees, making me feel nervous and excited at the same time. It rooted me in place, stunned by the scenery in front of me.
To the right, a huge Maypole stood tall, a beautiful ring of flowers decorating the top. Long ribbons were dropping to the floor, a group of women, men, and children grabbing onto them and dancing around the pole, intertwining the robes with each other. Laughter echoed through the air, and a smile spread over my face.
Almost all women and girls wore summer dresses with flower crowns on their heads. It looked so natural, almost as if this was the most normal thing for them. And it probably was. I glanced down at myself, satisfied with my clothing choice. It was as if I had known about the dress code and wouldn’t stand out even more.
To my left, several men stacked huge planks of wood into a pile. That’s probably going to be the bonfire they promised me. I let my gaze roam around, spotting all the little details and decorations they had put up. They tied ribbons around many branches on the trees around the field, floating in the wind.
“Shocked?” Gunnar asked.
“I thought this was going to be a bonfire.”
His eyes sparkled with excitement. “And it will be. But the bonfire is only part of it.”
I dropped my gaze from him, looking back at the field, realizing almost everyone eyed us. A heavy feeling settled in my stomach. I doubt it’s normal to bring a stranger to this celebration, a human, no less. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I was glad to have Gunnar by my side. He might be the reason I was here in the first place, but he was also the one keeping the people calm and not worried about my presence.
I sidestepped to hide behind Gunnar a little more, trying to get away from the piercing gazes. He raised a brow at me but remained silent. In the distance, I spotted Freya running towards us, carrying a handful of flower crowns.
When she reached us, she held one out to me. “Here, for you.”
“Why for me, too?”
She didn’t care to answer my question and forced the crown into my hands before rushing away again, handing out more flower crowns to the people here.
I stared down at the beautiful flowers in my hand and was hesitant to put the crown on my head. This wasn’t my celebration. I was only a guest. Would this be fine?
Gunnar gently took the crown out of my hands and placed it on top of my head. “All women and girls wear flower crowns. Even the guys sometimes do. Anyone is free to wear one, and it’s a fun little thing to do. Don’t think so much and feel, Amalia. This celebration here should feel like second nature.”
He stared at me with such intensity, I couldn’t help but drop my gaze. Nothing here felt natural to me. I had never seen something like this before. Of course, I had seen celebrations, parties, and bonfires, but nothing made me feel like this. It was intense.
The flower crown was heavy on my head, making it feel as if I was balancing a huge boulder. I didn’t feel worthy of it.
“Come, let’s move a little closer,” he said and moved forward, not waiting for an answer. I hurried after him, afraid to be alone here. All the people we passed greeted him respectfully, and he took the time to greet everyone back and spoke a few words. Everyone glanced at me as if they expected an introduction, but Gunnar never did. I remained in his shadow, feeling safe and content this way. Maybe he knew I didn’t want to be the center of attention.
“Did you bring a guest today?” A woman asked, her face deeply wrinkled and skin ashen. But her eyes were shining with curiosity and youth. My heart jumped in my chest.
“Yes, she is a very special guest today,” Gunnar said with a broad smile on his face.
Warmth crept up my neck and to my face, and I cleared my throat. I didn’t know why I felt happy about being a special guest, but I shouldn’t. The deal was to look at the situation and prove to him that I wasn’t a wolf, so I could return to my life and act as if all of this had never happened.
The old woman nodded and eyed me up and down. “What’s your name, little one?”
Did she really call me little one? I wondered if I should say something about it, but decided against it. There was no use in starting an argument with people I will never see again. “Amalia.”
“Amalia,” she repeated, letting it roll over her tongue.
Her stare made me squirm, and I looked back at the Maypole to distract myself.
I spotted beautiful, small lights flying through the air, looking a bit like fireflies. “How do you create those shimmery lights everywhere? It looks very magical.”
Gunnar furrowed his brows as he watched over the clearing. The lights jumped between the dancing people, shining brightly, but no one seemed to care about them.
He turned to me again. “What lights?”
I laughed nervously and pointed towards the Maypole. “Those lights.”
“Apparently, the lost bird you have found has a strong bond with magic,” the old woman said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She turned to the Maypole, and a soft smile spread over her face. “Those lights, little one, are the manifestation of the magic flowing around this place during the celebration.”
I stared at the dancing lights and didn’t quite grasp what she meant. I could see them because I had a strong bond with magic. What did she mean by that, exactly?
I cleared my throat. “What celebration is this, anyway?”
The old woman turned to me, her eyes wide. “You don’t know what we are celebrating today?”
“Did you not celebrate Beltane with your pack in the past?” Gunnar asked, equally surprised.
I tried to remember if we ever celebrated it, but it sounded foreign to my ears. “I can’t remember celebrating Beltane.”
Gunnar tilted his head to the side and nodded slowly. “I see. Usually, many packs in this region celebrate Beltane. Our allied packs from England and Scotland are here to celebrate with us, too. Beltane is our biggest spring festival.”
I shrugged. “I didn't grow up with many traditions, but I remember my grandparents used to follow certain traditions. My parents didn’t seem too interested in it, though. I can’t remember we celebrated any traditional celebrations.”
“Beltane celebrates the wedding of the Goddess and the God,” the old woman said. “The maypole over there is one of the key parts of the celebration. It represents the potency of the God, while the ring of flowers represents the fertile Goddess. The weaving of the ribbons symbolizes the union of the Goddess and the God, or the union between earth and the sky.”
“For us wolves, it is an important day. It’s when we celebrate finding love or committing to a partner. During the celebration, the pack members decide if they state together with their mate or not. Wolves without a mate wish for a partner during this time and for most, it is a mating ritual, too,” Gunnar added casually.
My mouth dropped open. “That sounds like an orgy!”
He laughed. “It isn’t. Many just get over-excited during this time. They feel the love in the air. But we have young ones around, so there won’t be anything happening they aren’t allowed to see, at least not in public.”
Gunnar winked, and I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe they let themselves be guided by some sort of ritual. Was it even their own decision then? But at least I didn’t see anyone strip naked yet, which was at least something.
“The most significant part is connecting to nature and finding inner peace. It’s a time to come clean, to see the world come alive again with spring, and to hope for the best.”
“Everyone seems so happy,” I said, looking at the laughing and dancing people around us. They didn’t seem to have a single worry on their minds.
“For many, it’s a day of hope and prayer. I’m sure you have seen the ribbons in the branches of the trees already. Each ribbon represents a prayer.”
Now the ribbons I thought were only decoration had a lot more meaning. So many people here were hoping for something while having a smile on their faces. I suppose nothing is as it seemed.
“I think this should be a good time for you to place a ribbon on a tree yourself. Wait here,” Gunnar said, and before I had a chance to protest, he was already jogging away from us.
“Little one,” the old woman said next to me.
“You have lost the connection to your roots, but the strong bond to the magic remains. What’s the name of your pack?”
“I’m not a wolf,” I answered.
She smiled. “What’s the name of your pack?”
I sighed. “Ruinas.”
Her eyes widened and sparkled with excitement. “That explains everything! The ruins are a place of power, and it seems you have a good part of their magic rooted inside you.”
“I honestly don’t know what you are talking about.”
“You don’t know about a lot of things, little one. But maybe clarity will come to you soon enough.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed it gently, before letting it go again and joining the group of dancing people not far away from us. She moved to the rhythm of the music as if she did nothing else in her life. Who would have thought an old lady like her could still move around in such a way?
Uneasiness spread through me after they both left me, and I looked around to find Gunnar. If I remained alone for too long, others might get the idea to speak to me, and that is what I wanted to avoid the most. To my relief, I didn’t have to wait much longer for Gunnar to return.
He handed me a red ribbon. “Here.”
I took it out of his hands, looking up at him. “And now?”
“Now you will make a wish,” he said, and carefully pushed me towards the trees close to us.
“You know I’m not part of all of this, right?” I asked, still feeling hesitant to take part in their important celebration.
He didn’t stop guiding me to the trees, though. “You worry too much. You won’t go to hell because you take part in our traditions.”
“I’m not religious,” I said.
“But your fiancé is.”
I stopped in my tracks. “How do you know that?”
“We checked him out a bit,” he answered, not showing the slightest bit of remorse for invading our privacy.
“You can’t do that, Gunnar! I’m not part of your pack, and you have no right to check up on me or my surroundings!”
I almost wanted to throw the damn ribbon on the floor and leave this place. My stomach turned. I didn’t want to trust him, yet I felt betrayed by his actions.
“I only wanted to know what kind of person he was. You might not be part of my pack, but you are a lone wolf still. I have to evaluate how much danger is coming from you or the people who are close to you. I need to make sure you aren’t a threat.”
I took a deep breath, trying to calm my anger. From a wolf’s perspective, his behavior wasn’t all that bad, but for a normal human being, this was stalker behavior. “I am not a wolf, Gunnar.”
He ran a hand through his hair, sighing. “I can understand you are angry about my snooping, but I mean no harm. Let’s drop this for tonight and enjoy the celebration.”
I first wanted to argue more, but seeing how the pack members slowly crept closer to us by the little discussion we had, I didn’t want to risk it. “Fine.”
He smiled. “Now, go on. Make a wish.”
I sighed and approached the tree. I didn’t know what I should wish for. George crossed my mind and his wish to finally become a father, but wishing for him to become a father felt wrong. This was supposed to be my wish, after all. I wished for a family instead. My own little family. Maybe this whole love fest here might bring me and George a bit of luck, too.
I carefully tied the ribbon around the branch and almost expected something magical to happen. But nothing out of the ordinary happened.
I returned to Gunnar, who still had a smile on his face. “All done.”
“Let’s have some fun,” he said, grabbing my healthy hand and running towards a group of people, dragging me along. They didn’t look up when we joined them and just continued to dance around us. Gunnar dropped my hand and started moving to the music. I stared at him in disbelief. He danced so naturally. And even though he was such a bulky man, his movements didn’t look clumsy or stiff. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When he saw me staring, he shook his head. “Don’t think, Amalia! Dance!”
And for once I tried to listen to him and moved my body to the music. For a moment, I felt a bit out of place and like I didn’t do it right, but after a while, it was almost as if magic took control of my body. A giggle bubbled up in me and I had no words to explain how free I felt. It was like I was seeing for the first time, actually feeling and smelling the air properly. I felt so connected to my surroundings, to nature. Almost as if I was a wolf again.