Susan ran her finger down the length of the knot, counting the turns again. She didn't really know why there were supposed to be thirteen, but she knew that was the way the knot was supposed to be made, and she wanted to do things RIGHT. She slid further down the branch until she was almost sitting on the knot that secured the other end of the rope, steadying herself with a hand against the tree trunk as she did so.
She reached up to check the location of the knot behind her ear one last time, then looked down to the spot at the base of the tree where she and Brian had so often picnicked, where they had made love for the first time. She thought of Brian making love to Jenny, and she pushed herself off the branch. There was a jolt, and then darkness.
She was making love. It was absolutely dark, and quiet, and the man she was with was very definitely NOT Brian, and she was happy. And the sex was VERY good, toe curling, I'm-not-sure-I-can-remember-my-name good. And when it was over, she and her lover continued to kiss and caress and cuddle until she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder.
She woke up in the first light of dawn to find herself at the foot of the tree, lying in what she thought of as the picnic spot. The noose was still around her neck, and for some reason her shoes were missing. She pulled the knot around in front of her, and ran the rope through her hands to find that it had been cut, apparently by something very, very sharp. She realized that she had no idea whatever what to do next, and sat back against the bole of the tree to think about it.
The sun was just beginning to come over the horizon when she heard a noise in the distance that quickly resolved itself into the bass rumble of a big motorcycle. The motorcycle and its rider soon came into view, and Susan watched as they turned off of the road and began to make their way across the field to where she sat. The rider was a tall woman, probably freakishly tall, wearing boots, jeans, a white tee shirt, and a black leather jacket. Her blonde hair was pulled tight against her head, and her hard face was made harder by mirrored sunglasses. She pulled to within a long step of Susan's feet, shut off the engine, and looked at Susan over the top of her sunglass frames.
"Hello, Susan," the woman said, smiling; her smile softened and warmed her face by a large measure. "And how are you this fine morning?"
"Confused," Susan answered, indicating the rope around her neck. "Do I know you?"
The woman snorted as she removed and folded her sunglasses, then hung them from her shirt collar. She set the motorcycle's kickstand, then swung an impossibly long leg over the bike and squatted near enough to Susan to offer her hand. "I'm Signe. I've come to get you."
Susan shook Signe's hand; it was warm and solid and felt very real. "Come to get me?" She thought for a moment. "I'm dead, aren't I?"
Signe nodded. "Thoroughly." She turned her face toward the sun and closed her eyes. "Mmmm, that's nice. Mind if I join you for a bit?" She didn't wait for a response, but pulled off her jacket, put her sunglasses back on, and sat next to Susan against the tree, facing the rising sun. She leaned back and closed her eyes.
"The thing about rituals," Signe said quietly, "Is that the really powerful ones don't need a shred of belief or real knowledge to work. You do the dance steps, and the magic happens, will you or will you not." She turned her head slightly and looked at Susan out of the corner of one eye. "And you, young lady, have very carefully stumbled into one of the oldest and most powerful rituals out there."
"By hanging myself?" Susan asked incredulously.
"By hanging yourself under an oak, with 13 turns on the noose... Hanging alone is usually enough, actually, but you did a particularly good job. So congratulations are in order; you have succeeded in making yourself a bride of the Gallows' Lord." Signe turned back to the sun and closed her eyes again.
"The bride of the...?!? What are you talking about?"
Signe smiled wickedly. "Are you going to deny that you had the wedding night?"
Susan found herself blushing. "Well, no, I guess not. But who...?"
Signe gave her another sidelong glance and continued smiling. "The Gallows' Lord. The one-eyed man. The Stormbringer. You'll figure it out."
Susan stared at her in bewilderment. "Odin? From the stories?"
"And she scores. But from now on, that is pronounced, 'My master', or if you ever meet him in person, 'My Lord'." Signe was obviously fighting a smile as she spoke.
Susan glared, offended, baffled, and horrified on several counts. Finally she said, "IF we meet face to face? I thought you said I was his wife?"
Signe dropped her head and chuckled. "Not wife. Bride. Concubine. About a quarter step above slave."
Signe pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose, turned to face Susan and looked at her over the top of the glasses. "You killed yourself, Susan. Your karma is a mess, and you can't have another spin of the wheel until you get things straightened out. And until then you are going to wear that noose and go barefoot, which may take a LONG time." She pushed her glasses up, and leaned back again. "On the plus side, the memory of your 'wedding night' will remain fresh and immediate, and no one who recognizes the Stormbringer's sovereignty will even THINK about mistreating you. It could be worse."
Susan stared at Signe and blinked for a long time. At last she said, "What am I going to have to do?"
Signe didn't look at her, but smiled broadly, still facing the morning sun. "First of all," she said, "You're going to take a bit of a ride with me." She rolled forward onto her knees, snapped to her feet with a jerk, then turned and offered Susan her hand.
Signe didn't answer until they were both seated on the bike, and she had started it. "Then? Then you are going to wait tables at a tavern where it has been happy hour for three thousand years, and they NEVER tip." She opened the throttle and released the clutch, and they left the tree behind.