Ghosts

Delta Story
cmwende@compuserve.com

GHOSTS NC-17

Summary: A flight of fancy into the fantasy of past and future — and Janeway and Chakotay, of
course!

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Ominous clouds quickly rolled in, punctuating the disappearing sunlight with exclamation points
of thunder. The Florentine skyline was illuminated with dots and dashes of lightening
broadcasting throughout the rolling skies. The Maestro walked from the windows to the small
woman, engrossed in her work and shook his head.

“Katarina, you must light some candles. If you do not, your eyes will become as poor as mine,” a
smiling da Vinci said to her in a soto voice.

Kathryn Janeway had become so absorbed in her sculpting that she was oblivious to the quickly
fading light and onerous sounds of the looming storm outside. “Oh, my… I had not realized how
late it had become,” she stated, looking up at him. “I have once again taken up too much of your
time.” She started cleaning her hands and preparing to save her project.

The older man chuckled softly. “The pleasure, as always, has been mine, my dear Katarina. I so
enjoy your visits. Your intelligence and beauty are a rare joy for an old man. And… you *do*
show some promise as an artist,” he stated as he reached over and quickly remolded a spot on the
figure she was
fashioning. “Another…oh… fifty-some years, and you should be able to show your pieces.” Their
mutual laughter rang through the studio at his realistic appraisal of her work.

“I think I enjoy our conversations as much as the lessons,” she said, looking at him with
reverence in her eyes. “It is so good to be able to talk with someone about ideas… and things…
other than my work. You do not know how important these times are to me.”

He leaned over and patted her cheek. “Ah, my little one. Do not tell me that you have no other
person to whom you can turn when your need is thus. A woman such as you certainly must have
friends… family… lovers.”

Kathryn lowered her head and blushed at his much too intimate comment. “My family is far
away. And, friends — yes; but, because of my position, I must remain… apart from them, and…”
“Lovers?” he repeated, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and on his lips.

Her face became more crimson. Her voice wavered as she finally said, “No lovers. Again,
because of my position…”

“Ah, but in order to be an artist, lovely Katarina, one must have… passion… desire! Perhaps that
is what your art
requires. Have you ever considered the import of such emotion? What… or who… inspires you
the most? Let your passions drive your art… do not concern yourself with precision and
controlled outcomes… let your heart be your voice.”

Kathryn gazed deeply in her tutor’s eyes. In them, she saw no end to the fathomless explorations
that his mind was willing to take… the risks, the… unknown. Just as he was lighting the candles
to illuminate the room around them, so was he attempting to enlighten her. It had been *so*
long since she had allowed anything like emotion or passion to surface in her life.
Control… discipline… that was what was needed for a Starfleet captain. Yet… within her, the
suppressed artist reached out to be born; the very soul of her cried out in the birth pangs. *I am
the Starfleet officer; Phoebe is the artist,* she thought, in remembering fondly her sister’s
uninhibited love of life. *I have always been the one in control… striving for… what? My
father’s acceptance? One more level of success in the hierarchy of Starfleet? And why?* She
looked at her friend and teacher, attempting to understand his unshaken interest in her.

“Katarina, you are very intense about your work. Such a person harbors equally intense feelings.
Certainly at some time in your life there was something that stirred your imagination… your
heart. Think back… what first possessed you in life? What first called to you… mesmerized
you… gave you a glimpse into a realm outside of yourself?”

The woman looked at him, a questioning expression on her face, as she obviously was trying to
recall… a first image… the first time she *felt* as well as heard a voice… a soul. Her eyes
closed, as if creating her private reverie. And then… there it was… the oak tree! Yes; that was
it… when she was ten years old…

The tree stood only about fifteen feet from her house in Indiana.
It was magnificent… over seventy feet tall, it towered over their two story home. Too tall to
climb, but with outstretched arms that always beckoned, it stood as a symbol of decades…
centuries… of endurance: surviving subzero winters, summer storms, and yet providing shelter
and sustenance to a myriad of life… and a comfort to her. At one time, when she was home on
leave during her Academy days, she had even written the lone poetic composition of her life
under its leaf-laden arms. Perhaps it was her Irish ancestry, but she could have almost sworn that
the words came to her from that tree…

Her holographic mentor observed her inward journey. His action froze as her thoughts recreated
secret images from long
sequestered dreams. *Ah, yes… search yourself, my dear… look for your muse.* A smile as
enigmatic as his Mona Lisa’s softened his creased face.

Her smile matched his, as she slowly opened her eyes and she responded to him. “Would you
believe that my ‘first love’, as would call it, was a tree?”

He softy laughed. “Hmmm… an immoveable object! But, it must have had some life in order to
inspire such a… revelation”
Her words appeared to come from a distance, as if she were reaching back through dreams and
time. “The tree seemed to have so many stories that it wanted to tell,” she said, almost
reverently.

“Perhaps it did. Did you ever truly stop… to listen to it?”
“I imagined that sometimes it *was* trying to tell me…
something. Like a person who was hundreds of years old…” Her glance at her holodeck host
brought a silent laugh to her, as she realized that it could have been him that she just described.
It was the bearded man who was now overcome with thought.
“Katarina… you have told me of your family… that you are from the island of the ancient Irish.
Our very own Caesar called Julius was there once, and told tales of a mystical folk who…
believed that such trees as these oak trees… were of a holy forbearance. Even our revered
historian, Pliny, spoke of the awe that the mighty oak had for the Celtic folk of yore.” He
paused, thinking deeply. “I believe I have one of their archaic texts. Let me get it for you;
perhaps you will find it of value in your quest for artistic inspiration.”

He slowly got up from the chair in which he had been sitting. Kathryn watched as he climbed the
steps to the wall of books within the studio. The candlelight cast floating shadows over the
outlines of the tomes, and as the old gentleman gently blew dust off of the shelves, with the dust
itself taking on the appearance of raindrops glistening with reflected rainbows. Suddenly, he
said, “Ah, ha! Here it is! ‘The Book of
Ballymote’… it is based on a pagan practice of tree worship… a little antiquated now, but
interesting from historic and artistic viewpoints.”

He descended the stairs with difficulty. “Ohhh. This wretched weather is not for my old bones.
My dear, I give you the text. Stay as long as you wish. As for me, it is off to bed with a pan of
hot stones to fend off the ague. Good night, my little one.” He gently kissed her on the forehead
and slowly, painfully shuffled off to his chambers.

The storm continued in its plunderage outside of the massive room. But the candles were warm
and comforting, as well as providing their welcoming light. Kathryn took one of the large tapers
over to the slanted top of the desk of her teacher. Carefully setting aside the abundance of papers
and plans that were scattered all over the work surface, she settled herself onto the stool and
looked at the venerable text. The book itself was large — about 20 by 30 centimeters. It was an
additional five centimeters thick. Centuries of dust was entrapped within the heavily tooled
leather cover, which was blackened with age and soot. Elaborate designs swirled over the
exterior, entwined among each other, forming knots with no beginning or end. Like massive
roots beneath the ground’s surface, they tangled together for support and to sustain life.
Suddenly, letters appeared among the obscuring patterns… “Ballymote”. She felt compelled to
caress the hard veneer; a strange sensation arose in her fingertips… tingling… a surge of…
energy.

She slowly opened the book. Its yellowed parchment pages at first glance seemed brittle, but as
she turned the frontpiece, she sensed strength — almost vitality — in the leaf. The printed words
were from antiquity, in a stilted form of mixed English and Celtic dialects. There was a
primitive list of its contents, over which she skimmed… and the words seemed to jump off the
page, locking onto her eyes and calling to her: Duir Dair Derwen — The King of Trees – The
Oak. Yes — that was what she wanted; to learn more about *her* tree. She quickly turned the
pages to the entry.

The first lines described the tree as having “magickal strength; the doorway to inner knowledge;
the ability to see the invisible or be invisible; the ability to bar or open the ways.” *Magical
strength, indeed!* she chuckled to herself. *It’s only a tree…*
She read further, about the scholars and astronomers of old… the druidhen… the druids… the
“knowers of oak trees”. Images of the figures began to form in her mind… a smoky odor seemed
to penetrate her nasal passages… her ears were attuned to a lilting tune being played on a lone
harp… which then was joined by the melancholy air of a lute. Sharper notes from a whistle
completed a trio now. The air felt brisk; a light wind was caressing her skin and ever so slightly
blowing her hair… to her side, just out of eyesight, she could sense a warm glowing light… and
heard the crackle of an open wood fire. She looked up… and she was no longer in da Vinci’s
studio in holodeck two, but… in a clearing just outside a large wooded area atop a small hill…
on… Earth?

It was a moonless night. The brightly blazing fire all but extinguished the twinkling heavenly
lights that were present, but she could make out familiar Earth sky constellations: there were
Cassiopeia and her king, Cepheus directly overhead; Pegasus with its brilliant stars, Sceat,
Markab and Algenib, was flying through the sky with Perseus the hunter in pursuit. She sighed
deeply… had she reactivated a program about Indiana? Or was she just dreaming about her
conversation earlier… about her oak tree…?

Yes… that must be it. For there, in the background of the fire, standing by itself several meters
in front of the copse of trees, was… *her* oak tree. Or, at least, one very much like the one of
her memories. Standing majestically, its limbs, which were devoid of most of its leaves, created
webbed like patterns reflected in the fire’s flames onto the cold night sky. It was cold, she
realized suddenly. Her arms instinctively pulled tighter around her… a cloak, a heavy gray
woolen cloak! How did *that* get here? She was no longer at the desk… the book was gone.
Her eyes started focusing on the area around her… she was looking for the source of the music…
and now, voices… chanting voices… were joining the background melody.

She started to walk towards the fire, and again became cognizant of clothing other than her
Starfleet uniform. She reached out of the warming confines of the cloak to examine it more
closely. The weight of a hood was hanging down her back, and the cloak had a heavy, ornate
metal clasp at its neck, holding it in place. She reached up to touch it, and identified engraving
or carving on it, in an intricate pattern… she tried to follow its
lines… and it “felt” similar to the labyrinthine design on the cover of the Ballymote book.
Opening the front of the cloak, she saw that she wore a long robe of deepest midnight blue… at
least, she thought it was blue… which seemed to be luminescent in the reflected light. Around
her waist a thin leather belt was slung low over her hips, with long tails trailing from a knot that
rested on her flat stomach. She sensed that the tails were weighted in some way, and raised
them closer to examine them: woven into each end was a small faceted stone… one appeared to
be blood red and the other a milky white. She let the ends fall as she heard the voices getting
closer. The winds had picked up now, and her thick hair was veiling her face, its free-flowing
lengths swirling around her shoulders and head.

A group of about twenty cloaked people exited the wooded area. They were led by a tall, thin
figure, whose baritone voice was leading them in chanting. She was still in the shadows, and
presumed that she was hidden from their view. She examined the figures in the group, as they
took their places around the fire. Their music had ceased, as the chanting became the focal point
of the gathering. The hooded leader had reached out with a long staff in his hand. He started
walking in a broad circle around the fire, using the staff as a marking device and inscribing the
circular pattern around the blazing center. Around and around he walked, his cadence sure and
firm. No sound was heard except the mesmerizing rhythm of his spellbinding voice… he slowly
incanted:

“Oak logs will warm you well,
That are old and dry.
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But the sparks will quickly fly.

Birch logs will burn too fast,
Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn logs are good to last —
Cut them down in the fall.

Holly logs will burn like wax,
You may burn them green;
Elm logs like smoldering flax,
No flame is born to be seen.

Beech logs for winter time,
Yew logs as well;
Green alder logs it is a sin
For any person to sell.

Ash logs, smooth and gray,
Burn them green or old…
Keep all that wood comes your way
For their worth is like unto gold.”

He completed the circle, and stepped outside of it. He raised his hands,
as if in supplication, and continued, “I welcome all to the cosa’n de fe’ile… the way of ritual… on
this night of
remembrance… Samhain. The sacred grove is purified, and awaits to greet our blessed spirits.
All are welcome and invited to join as we celebrate the season of waiting… the beginning of our
new year. Just as our brother and sister trees of the sacred grove begin their regrowth, so do we
and all who have departed into the Otherworlds before us. Tenm laida!”

The group surrounding him started chanting the words… “tenm laida; tenm laida! Welcome,
spirit visitors! We greet you with gifts and offerings… tenm laida; tenm laida…” They started
following their priest-leader, their ever circling swaying motions blending and becoming one
with the pulsation of the dancing flames. She watched with fascination, absorbing the grace and
agility of the tall dark figure. He pulled apart from the gamboling gathering and walked over to
the oak tree. His eyes began searching, knowing that they would find her. When they found her
in the darkness beyond, they locked onto her eyes… *into* her eyes… holding her as tightly as
any vise. She could not look away. Those eyes… that voice… Tuvok… it was Tuvok! He slowly
lowered the cowl-like hood, his gaze ever drawing her towards him… towards the circle.

She walked hesitatingly towards him, compelled and pulled by his steadfast stare. As she
approached the circle, the motion of the participants gradually stopped, until all was silent once
more. The dark priest stated firmly but with a welcoming tone, “It is not right to be alone on a
night such as this; you must not expose your spirit to the perils of the Otherworld. Come, greet
the visiting spirits with the company of others. You are welcome for this festival. The great
shield of Skathach is about to be lowered, so that we may commune with our departed. Join us
as we honor our departed friends with the great feast of Fleadh nan Mairbh.”

She was now in the blazing light from the fire. Her auburn tresses glistened with deep red
highlights; her skin radiated in the golden light. The assembled folk gasped and their faces froze
in awe as they fully saw her for the first time. The tall monastic figure reached out to take her
now outstretched hands. The surrounding voices started murmuring soft whispers, but quickly
increased in their intensity, “Danu, mo bandia… it is the Mistress of the Grove, Mother of the
Rivers! It is she who embraces and guides our leavings from this world to the
Otherworld… it is Lady Caitlin! Master Thovaihn, it is the Lady!”

The thin priest nodded his solemn head. “Aye, good folk, it is who she seems to be… the spirits
have brought her to us to guide them to their rest in the Otherworld. Let us honor her with our
hospitality.” He led her to a large, flat rock and covered it with a fur throw. Reverently, he
helped her to be seated. Only then did he turn to attend other duties.

“Neslrum… how does the caldron?” he asked, turning to reveal a smallish gnome-like man
hunched over a large steaming kettle, almost as big as him, hidden on the far side of the fire. Its
steam was just now starting to billow above the cavorting flames.

“Master, it is almost time to share. It only lacks your final blessing,” replied the other man.
Kathryn/Caitlan recognized that voice also… she allowed her eyes to focus on the
diminutive figure… yes, his face was framed with a familiar orangish fur-like hair; her guess and
his appearance matched… Neelix!

She scanned the faces and figures of the rest of the gathering, but all the others were strangers…
no one whom she could recall. Why… only Tuvok and Neelix? Where were the others?
Her thoughts were interrupted by Thovaihn’s voice, as he held out his staff over the steaming pot
and passed the wooden rod over the top of the open kettle three times. “Tonight we call upon
the spirits who remain in the Inbetween, those friends who have not reached the Otherworld. Be
at peace with us, and walk kindly among us. We call upon the spirits of all the trees to be at
peace with us and to walk kindly with us. We call upon the spirits at rest in the Otherworld to
accepts our offerings on this, the first night of a new year.”

The priest turned to the group surrounding the fire and
continued. “Good people, on this night we invite the spirits of our friends at unrest in the
Inbetween to walk among us, to celebrate with us this night of Samhain, and to be guided
through the opening gates between the worlds. We call to these spirits to appear and be
remembered. Danu mo bandia, even the Lady Caitlin herself, is here with us to guide you to your
peace.”
Kathryn suddenly sat upright, her eyes widening as she realized that her presence was a pivotal
element in the events… and that she had no clue as to what she was to do! She was a person who
always liked to be prepared, or at least have a *briefing* on a proposed mission; contingency
plans were almost always in
place… but here, she knew nothing… no one to give her the details. Thovaihn’s eyes once more
locked with hers; a peace settled over her… *he* would guide her; she only needed to follow his
lead.

Elfin glee shown in Neslrum’s eyes as he approached his leader. His hands were holding a bowl
of polished burled wood, filled with what appeared to be shelled nuts and loose grain. Thovaihn
reached into the bowl, and filled his hand with the mixture. He raised his hand above the bowl,
letting the particles rain down into the container. “The time of Imbas Forosna is upon us. Let us
partake of the sacred grain, dedicated to our lady.” He took the bowl from his assistant. He
offered the bowl with its contents to each member of the group. One by one, they picked up
some of the mixture between forefinger and thumb, and swiftly ate the food. As the particles
were being offered, the offerer spoke these words: “May the spirits find their peace with us
tonight as they join us in our rite.” The partakers responded with the phrase, “May peace and
happiness come tonight.”

At the completion of the sharing of the grain by Neslrum,
Thovaihn took the bowl over to Kathryn. “Danu mo bandia, you who lead the spirits from the
Inbetween to the Otherworld, be with us tonight and with all the spirits as you guide them
through the mighty gate.” She took the bowl, and offered it to him. He repeated the action of the
others and indicated that she was to keep the bowl.

Even as he was with her, the celebrators were in a line to sip from an earthenware chalice that
Neslrum had filled with the steaming liquid from the caldron. Again, as all had completed this
part of the ritual, the little man and his tall companion served each other; then, the chalice was
filled again and brought to their guest of honor. Without a word, Thovaihn signaled to Kathryn
that she was to drink the contents of the goblet. The first sip told her that it was a warm honeyed
wine mixture, mulled with a mixture of aromatic spices. It tasted very good on this chilly
evening, and she welcomed its offering.

As she drained the final drop, she heard the group of
participants starting yet another chant. This time, it sounded more like a low droning hum,
uttered in a sing-song rhythm. Their bodies began swaying; they had their arms draped across
each other’s shoulders as a communal support. The sounds became more fervent; Thovaihn and
Neslrum were now joining in. Kathryn found the sounds of the chants were now coming from
her lips. She remained on her granite seat, but she, too, was swaying in time with the singing.
She closed her eyes; it was if she were asleep, drifting on clouds of feathers. She could feel the
breeze caressing her cheeks.

Suddenly, the now-familiar strains were joined by other voices… softer… as if further away. The
new voices seemed… more melodic… richer… but as they progressed, they became… more
plaintive… almost as if they were in pain. Still, she kept her eyes closed, enraptured by the
lilting voices. The breeze became stronger… colder; the voices came closer and closer… the
lyrics lost their logic… were fragmented and foreign… the tones were no longer melodic… the
musical tone was
degenerating… into sighs… cries… and moans.

Her eyes quickly opened and beheld a frenzied sight, for all around her — to the sides, in front
and back and above and beyond — twirling forms of beings and faces swam their way through
the swirling smoke spirals and around the robed assembly circling the flaring fire. They were
there but not there, somewhat transparent but dense enough in form to present features that were
calling to recesses in her mind… begging for
acceptance… for acknowledgment… for serenity.

They continued their winding convolutions, gamboling and twisting among their hosts…
reaching out arms that were now long, now short, now twining and stroking and grasping… to
reach a sought goal. Veils of an iridescent substance clouded their forms and limbs, floating
along as diaphanous wings cloaking their
bodies… their eyes were dark as unconsumed coal, but shone with a brilliance that illuminated
their pale faces. Their whirling patterns of flight took them into long swoops and languid soars,
high as if they were going to join the stars above… low enough to bring them so close that the
chilling coldness of their breaths seemed to freeze on contact.

Kathryn was consumed by the overwhelming visual display… muted by the cacophony of sensual
stimuli. Her head first was drawn one way, only to be enticed by another specter. She wanted to
run… to escape… yet, the beings compelled her to remain. Her companions of the circle had
joined in with the macabre dance; they, too, were swirling and jumping and seeming to unite
with the ethereal beings. The more the dance progressed, the more distinct the features of the
apparitions became… and she became immobile… her blood ran as cold as an icy sea… as
familiar features revealed themselves to her. For these phantoms were not here for the assembled
gathering; they were there for *her*… they were her lost shipmates… the lost souls of the Delta
Quadrant… longing for solace of the Otherworld… of home.
Their petitions and pleas were as the cold wind, crying out to her for consolation of closure. Her
heart became as heavy as their moans, realizing that she was responsible now for them in death,
even as she had been in life.

There was a brush against her shoulder, and she turned quickly to gaze into the pleading eyes of
Ensign Kaplan… a tap on her arm and she spun to be grasped by Lieutenant Durst, his body still
gaping with the wound inflicted when the Vidiians tore into him.

A maniacal laughter came from the trees… she twisted to see Lon Suder jumping from branch to
branch in the heavy oak tree, high above her head… chasing and twisting after Crewman Darwin,
his prey on the ship… now his eternal quarry in their unending contest.

She heard her name being whispered, and a breath like a kiss on her cheek… she put her hand up,
only to see it disappear through an apparition of Commander Cavit… dear, dear Cavit… she
reached out for him, only to have him fade away into the hauntingly sweet visage of Quinn…
wonderful, tortured Quinn… who had changed the Q Continuum forever… she tried to close her
eyes, willing them peace and conclusion.

Her own peace was not to be, however. A wild, animalistic howling came from around the fire,
jerking her attention away from the loving thoughts… a howling that became a screeching
shrillish laughter… Seska!… still tormenting, even after death… she was dancing around the fire
with Jonah, who joined her in her eerie taunt of her eternal enemy… for Seska, peace would
only be if Kathryn could never attain it. They encircled Kathryn, tugging… grasping… snatching
at her hair… her cloak… her body… bringing her dangerously close to the blazing fire.

Suddenly she felt herself pulled away from their diabolical grasp, and being spun away once
more by a trio led by Lieutenant Stadi… just as the Betazoid woman had once guided the ship’s
helm, once more she was giving Kathryn a safe passage. Ensign Hogan and Crewman Bendera
shielded their former leader from the flames being thrown by the still mutinous pair.

A booming voice abruptly stilled the gyrating apparitions. The cold night came to a stand-still as
Thovaihn raised his staff high over his head and began an incantation:

“Now is the darkness; now is the pain; now are the fears.
Now is the danger; now is the hate; now are the tears.
Call on our Mistress, she is the one; hers is the way
She will bring peace and solace; she will bring eternal day.”
He turned to her and said, “Good Mistress, your presence has called these unrested souls to our
celebration. Just as you had responsibility for them in life, so you must lay their souls to rest.
However, in order to fulfill the task, you must have the help of another to complete the journey.
Even though you are to lead them to the Otherworld, the Gatekeeper must be summoned by you
to help open the gate.”

Kathryn was in a daze with all that had been happening.
“Gatekeeper? Where?”

“You must circle the oak tree, the king of trees, three times. Then, the invisible will become
visible to you. Follow its way into the sacred grove; the lights of your stones will show you the
path. The Gatekeeper will meet and instruct you, for a sacrifice must be offered. He alone
knows what offering must be made. When the gift has been offered and accepted, you will be
allowed to open the gate. Only the two of you as one can open the gates and allow peace for the
spirits of Samhain.”

Thovaihn reached down, picked up the stone-laden ends of her leather girdle, and placed them in
her hand. The stones began to glow as precious gems, their glowing light warming her hand.
“Now, be on your way. You and the Gatekeeper must return before the first light of dawn, else
the spirits will be unrest for yet another year.”

At the mention of their being, the spirits moaned a mournful song and spiraled around her:

“Go down the path of dark and gloom
To the Gatekeeper in his forest room;
Return again to grant us peace
And from our torment find release.”

The music swelled as it seemed that their very motion jostled her to the mighty oak. Invisible
hands were grasping hers, leading her in the magical dance around the tree.

She completed the third circuit and found herself no longer with the ghostly host but surrounded
by looming dark shadows of the towering trees. The warmth inside her closed hand bade her
open her fingers, and, as she did so, a golden illumination spread out around her… the stones
were lighting a path through the tall woods.

Above her head, she heard a rustling on the almost bare branches; a soft bird song echoed forth
in symphonic words… lilting her name… calling… “Kathryn, Kathryn… follow me; I will lead
you. Listen for my voice; I will safely guide you to the
Gatekeeper’s glen.” The whispering wind of a bird in flight touched her cheek, and there before
her was a nightingale, with large, voluminous blue eyes. “Follow me, Kathryn,” the bird
repeated, in a low mellow voice… a voice that sounded like… Kes.

*Could it really be?* thought Kathryn. *Dear Kes… who could always calm me and point my
thoughts in the right direction…* She reached out to touch the bird, only to see its shimmering
wings fly in front of her, guiding her on this mystical journey. How far away was this
Gatekeeper? What sacrifice would be required? She thought back to the time when she had
gone through another ritual… for another crew member who was dead… for her very own Kes.
Would she once more be designing her own trial to aid her departed crew? Was this all a
creation of her own mind?
Reason and logic were no longer functions of her thoughts; she did not know how long she had
been following her bird companion through the shadowy forest. She was loosing her sense of
space as well as time… it seemed that her feet were no longer
touching ground… that her arms and legs were floating in another time and place.

The deprivation of sense was clouding her thoughts when she saw a glow coming from an area
ahead of her. As she and her avian companion got closer, the trees thinned, and an open area
appeared among the trees. It was a circular space, about thirty feet across, carpeted with thick
dark green moss. The edge of the area was surrounded by a ring of tall torches, illuminating the
area with a soft warmth and incandescence. She walked to the center of the opening, peering
around its circumference and into the woods beyond. The Kes-bird perched on one of the tree
branches. Together, their voices called, “Hello? Hello?”

A sound came from the trees behind her; she turned to see who — or what — was approaching. A
shadow took form as a figure came out of the darkened area, and grew in size as it got closer.
Features became more distinct… and a familiar form appeared. Recognition of the person
brought a smile to her face, even though his garb, like hers, was… different. Clad in leggings and
tunic of a soft brown suede, he drew close to her, and smiled… that wonderful, warm, radiant
smile that she knew so well. “Chakotay!” she said with relief and joy, reaching out for him.

A quizzical expression came upon his face and he ever so slightly backed away. “Milady? No,
my name is Cuchulainn, the Gatekeeper of the Otherworld. Why do you seek me in my
hollow?”

She, too, now felt hesitant. Backing into the role she had been assigned in this eerie fantasy, she
spoke softly but firmly. “I am called… Caitlin. I am known as the Mistress of the Grove. I have
been sent by… others… to request of you to help me open the gate of the Otherworld, so that
certain… spirits… of my acquaintance may be at peace.”

The swarthy man of the woods approached her once more. “I had been shown in a vision that
you would come on this Samhain eve. It has been many years since any has sought my
assistance; the spirits must be many.” He started circling her, his right hand gently marking the
circumference from her left cheek… around her head… and came to rest her right cheek. She
closed her eyes with the sensation that it aroused in her.

“You do know that there is a price for my aid, do you not?”
She opened her eyes and found her face only inches from his. Her eyes stared into the dark
depths of his. His breath was warming her face and warning her being. “Yes, I have been told.
But, I have nothing to offer, other than… these stones,” she said, showing him the now-dimmed
red and white stones that she held in her hands.

He gently… slowly… closed her fingers around the two objects.
“The stones are merely tools. A sacrifice must be something personal… cherished… a forfeit of
self…” His hands were once more caressing her… finding her lips… her chin… her neck. His
fingers tenderly raised the hair from her long neck, exposing the white skin that contrasted to his
dusky hand. He leaned down and lovingly placed a kiss on her neck, following its curvature
with additional ones. She leaned with each touch, allowing him access to his goals…
succumbing with each brush of his lips… sighing with each breath.

He continued speaking, in hushed, shortened phrases. “The
gift…must be… something… that has… never been… given… before… to me… or… to you.” His
very utterance seemed to mesmerize her more. His hands grasped her shoulders and pulled her
tightly to him; his lips found hers.

She gasped with her awareness of his strength… his desire. *Yes… I know now what is
required,* she thought. *But… can I? Who is this really… or am I really here?* Kathryn’s
thoughts were as disarrayed as the emotions cascading through her body. She found her arms
reaching up to embrace him… to pull him closer to… into her. *If only this really were…
Chakotay… or, is it really him?* A small laugh went through her mind. *Would it really be a
sacrifice?*

He pulled away, only to lean to her ear and whisper, “*You* are the sacrifice… but you already
know that, do you not?” His eyes were burrowing into her very soul.

Kathryn drew in a breath before her simple reply, “Yes; I
understand.” Even as she spoke, she could feel his powerful hands finding their way to the clasp
of her cloak. He opened the metallic buckle and allowed the heavy garment to fall onto the
verdant forest floor. His hands now took on a gentle touch as they continued their journey to her
breasts, and tenderly fondled the soft, welcoming mounds, rising to meet his search, underneath
her robe. His caress of the delicate area left no doubt in her mind as to what was to follow… and
the idea of such pleasure as a sacrifice was quickly disappearing from her dazed mind and
aroused body.

He reached around her neck, under the soft weight of her hair, to find the restraining closure to
her robe, to further release her responding body to him. She was searching for the lower hem of
his tunic, to allow herself the touch of his rich bronze skin. His breathing was starting to take on
a more desperate sound… the breaths were shorter, more labored. “Kathryn…” he moaned into
her ear.

She jumped, hearing this form of her name. *Kathryn? But… I told him ‘Caitlin’ Could it be…
no, it was mind tricks… the zephyrs of this magical place.*

Their remaining clothing fell to join her cloak. They stood facing each other, in the cold late
autumn night, their bodies warm and glowing with the passion that had been awakened. She
lifted her right hand, and laid it on his left chest, as she had done many times before… in another
time… another reality. His deeply dimpled smile in response to her action resolved any lingering
doubts that she had about what was to come; he knew… he knew what this touch meant. This
was *not* a woodsman named Cuchulainn; this was her Chakotay. Just as they had pledged to
each other that they would care for their joint crews, now they would share in putting to rest the
spirits of the souls that they had lost from their combined bands… good people, tortured people…
but *their* people, even in death…

He pulled her into his all-encompassing embrace. *Only the two of you as one… can open the
gates,* she thought, surrendering to his lips once more. His hold was now urging their bodies
down… down to the welcoming cushions of the garments and thick moss. As they lowered
themselves, anticipating the culmination of their passion, the materials of their cast-off clothing
became a thick silken bed, in a shimmering midnight blue that mirrored the starry skies
overhead, with gray and brown spirals and swirls further giving it life. Their sighs matched the
sighs surrounding their mystical place of repose.

“Kathryn,” he said, “Somewhere… sometime… someplace… I have loved you before… I have
always loved you.” This gentle man was exploring her luxuriant body with his hungry hands…
insatiable in their need to gain nourishment from her life-giving stores. His hands were not the
only part of him gaining in strength and demands; she could feel his evergrowing desire seeking
her own awakened, welcoming chamber.

Her hands encircled his broad back, her fingers stroking paths of ever increasing intensity,
finally grasping the tensed muscles of his firm buttocks. Both of their bodies had assumed a
rocking rhythm that further escalated the motions of their hands… of their passion. And,
suddenly, the gatekeeper found his gate… she led him in… and the two were as one. No magical
words were needed, other than sighs and whispered names. A sweet song from the nightingale
echoed from the treetops high above them. As they drifted into a light slumber, remaining
leaves from the almost barren trees rained down onto the pair, transforming and meshing into a
downy soft coverlet, imbued with designs of never- ending, never-beginning knots.

He awoke to the silken feel of her fingers seeking his strength once more. Sensing her need to
gain from his vitality, he, too, sought her desire. Swollen, warm and moist from past and
present, she was ready for him. Overjoyed at her response and willingness, he once more
accepted her gift to him. This time, there was not the immediate intensity of their need, but the
slower, savoring motions needed to satisfy their ageless
yearnings. Where… when… had these feelings begun? Surely, they were not from this one place
in time, for the power of the two beings was too much for this one small moment.

The ecstasy of their rapture obliterated the world around them until they were summoned from
their love-induced reverie by the nightingale’s haunting song above their heads. They both turned
to look up at the lone witness to their fervent consummation. The melodic trills again took on
the familiar human voice. “My friends, it is time to return to the circle; daylight will be here
soon.”

Kathryn stiffened, realizing the implications of a late arrival to her starting place. As she stirred
to get up, her avian attendant swooped down and revolved over the entwined pair. The coverlet
once more became swirling leaves, scattering to their new homes within the trees. As the bird
continued to circle, the blue and gray and brown cushion underneath them became fluid and
flowed over their bodies, unwinding and winding soft and coarse threads of the several colors
around them, once more clothing them in the garments which they had discarded earlier.

The Gatekeeper arose, and stretched out his two hands to Kathryn, to help her up. He adjusted
the gray cloak, carefully
fastening the metal clasp and finally silently kissed her one more time.

The nightingale was on the ground in front of them. Suddenly, the feathered animal started
growing in size… wider and
wider… longer and longer… taller and taller… until she stood, equal in height with the man and
woman. “Climb onto my back and allow me to transport you back to the others,” she softly said
in her serene voice. In amazement, the couple climbed aboard the glistening black back of their
chariot. Cuchulainn carefully encircled the birds neck with his strong arms; Kathryn secured
herself behind him, her arms lovingly grasping him around his waist.

With an effortless ease, the enchanted bird arose; the burden of her passengers was no more
than two spare feathers. High above the trees they rose, flying into the stars above. Kathryn
leaned into the Gatekeeper’s broad back, savoring the strength and comfort of his body once
more. The sparkling background of the night sky cradled them with a parental protectiveness…
never again did she want to be without his contentment and serenity…
Almost as quickly as their journey across the forest began, the Kes-bird landed, just out of sight
of the circle of celebrators and their leaders. The communal dance with the spirit visitors was
still proceeding. It was obvious that most of the contents of the cauldron had been consumed,
for the tempo of the
frolicking had reached a fevered pitch. Kathryn and Cuchulainn walked to edge of the group; it
was then that Thovaihn saw them. He raised his staff; suddenly all clamor and movement
ceased. The fluid spirits sought resting places on the branches of the ancient oak tree; the human
participants fell to the ground in an exhausted stupor.

Thovaihn approached the pair. “Welcome, Mistress and Master. We have been awaiting you.
Will you be able to open the gate and allow entry to the Otherworld?”

Cuchulainn spoke. “All is in harmony. We are prepared to open the gate, good sire.” He took
Kathryn’s hand and led her to the massive tree.

Thovaihn once more raised his staff, and struck the tree with a mighty blow. “Duir Dair
Derwen, Mighty Oak King, we bring the Mistress of the Grove and her chosen, the Gatekeeper,
to open your exalted gate, the entrance to the Otherworld. Hear us now, as we invoke the chant
of Imbolc, the way of the Sacred Grove.” He continued with his song:

“Tree of Life, Tree of Death,
You who open to eternal light
Be with these, our spirit friends,
And guide them safely through this night.”

Cuchulainn then said to Kathryn, “I will now open the door, and you will lead the spirits on their
way. Hold high a stone in each hand.” He stood in front of the majestic tree and placed his
hands on its thick trunk. As his hands caressed the jagged bark, the tree shook. A loud “crack”
echoed through the charged, unnatural night air. The tree opened, exposing a wide burled gate,
held closed by a large tongued latch. He pulled at the crosspiece of the lock, dislodging it from
its holder. He pulled at the massive gatedoors… and a scene of a sea of welcoming opaque light
appeared as the doors opened.

As the light suddenly appeared, the perched apparitions became an undulating wave of flutter
and sound, swirling, diving, tumbling… and flying towards Kathryn’s upraised hands. She
watched in awe and amazement as the stones grew, until they entirely filled her palms. They
were once more glowing with their unearthly radiance, but they did not feel hot… only…
comforting.

She was frightened at first by the frenzied phantoms circling her; but she stayed her post. They
spiraled up and down and around her, seeming to vie for positions. Suddenly, one by one, they
became piercing, potent beams… each focused with the intensity of a laser and one by one, they
entered the spheres she held… murmuring to her, in their final split second, their eternal
gratitude… and bidding her peace, also. As quickly as each entered, he or she was reborn, as the
sphere released a stream of glittering particles… and all soared with determined velocity to join
the myriad of stars filling the velvet sky.
All of the spirits had passed through except one. The last of the apparitions circled Cuchulainn
several times before making her final exit. The voice of Seska rang forth, its laughter piercing
the domain, “My soul is leaving this realm, but my spirit will always be next to yours.” And, she,
too, disappeared among the others…

His intent eyes followed her departure, a stern look on his stone-like face. As her being joined
the others to the
Otherworld, he looked at Kathryn. “You alone are the spirit with mine. There will never be
another…”

Kathryn heard a door open, and realized that her eyes were closed. She groggily fought to open
them … had she been asleep? She looked up as a figure approached her through the shadows of
the flickering candlelight.

“Kathryn… are you all right? You were supposed to join me for dinner,” Chakotay’s voice asked
with concern as he appeared from out of the darkness. He walked over to her. Seated on a tall
stool behind the slanted desk, she seemed to be in a daze… neither her eyes or her voice seemed
to be able to speak.

She shook her head, as if sweeping away the cobwebs of sleep. “Yes, Chakotay; I’m all right. I
guess I must have dozed off while I was reading…”

He took her hands into his, only to find that the fingers of each hand were tightly curled into
fists. He gently pulled her clutching fingers open, and she relaxed her hands. They both looked
into her now-opened hands… in one, there was a small red stone; in the other, one of a milky
white. She raised her quickly paling face; their eyes met.

“Kathryn, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!” he laughed, as he slid her off of the stool and took
her trembling form into his arms.

Kathryn softly murmured, with a serious smile on her face, “I have… I have seen *many* of
them.” She looked at the stones, and moved the white one from her right hand to join its sister
red one in her left palm. She folded her fingers, once more enclosing the talismans. She then
slowly closed the ancient book in front of her, again fingering the worn, tooled design on its
cover.

She took a deep breath, and looked intensely into his trusting but questioning eyes. “Tell me,
Chakotay; do you believe in ghosts?” Her face had regained some of its color… and her piercing
blue eyes danced wildly, “Because… have I ever got a story for you!”

******************** And that’s all, folks! ********************

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