It was late in the season. The last rags of leaves rattled on the witch-fingered branches of the elms scratching at the slate-grey sky which lowered over the tumbled ruins. There would be more rain before nightfall.
It was late in the day too, but there were still a few tourists about.
The man who rested his backpack against the edge of the ticket booth did not look like the usual sort of tourist who frequented the place these days. For a start he was English, and he did not seem to be carrying a camera, although he might have had anything from a box Brownie to a full-scale cine outfit in that backpack.
The curator made a mental note to keep an eye on this one.
His overlong hair and embroidered jacket marked him as more likely to be one of those hippy 'travellers' who'd caused so much trouble in the seventies down at the Stonehenge site, before they'd put up the barbed wire and security alarms. Not that he looked old enough to have been involved in that business. He couldn't be more than twenty seven or eight. And he didn't look like a troublemaker. But then, they never did.
Although the Abbey ruins weren't as famous as the Druid temple on Salisbury Plain these New Age types had some funny ideas about this site too. Especially since that treasure-trove find of pagan artifacts not far from here had hit the headlines. Dope smoking longhairs seeking mystic experiences weren't at all the sort of thing that Her Majesty's Government, in the form of its English Heritage curators wanted to encourage. Nevertheless he plastered a helpful smile on his face as he moved over to the desk.
"Good evening, sir. Can I help you?"
"I'd like a ticket, please."
The curator glanced at his watch. "We'll be closing in half an hour. You won't have time to get to the top of the tower."
His customer smiled. "That's okay. I'm not very good with heights."
Conceding defeat the man peeled a ticket of the roll. "That'll be two pounds. D'you want a guide book?" (May as well screw this hippy for every penny I can.)
"No. I've been before."
I just bet, he thought, but he kept up the facade. "Oh. Before the site was opened then?"
The tourist smiled again. "You could say that. Yes."
"Right. Well, keep to the paths. They're clearly marked. And don't forget, we close at sunset. You'll hear the bell."
For the first time the curator looked steadily into his visitor's eyes and was momentarily startled to find himself looking into two mirror-dark pupils. He barely heard the man's reply.
"I won't forget."
The visitor shouldered his backpack and strode off down the path, humming tunelessly. The curator watched him idly. There had been something he was going to do...
He shook his head and turned back to his book. Only half an hour to go, then he could close up and go home.
The visitor kept his casual pace until he was sure that he was out of sight of the ticket booth. Then he stopped and leaned back against the wall with a sigh of relief.
So far, so good. He was taking a terrible risk, moving out in the open like this, and on a site that was sure to be watched, but he had little choice. There was so little time, and so few of them left, now.
After taking a few moments to compose himself he checked quickly to ensure that he was not being watched and knelt to open the pack. If the curator had been watching he would have thought that his suspicions were justified, for the squat black cylinders which the man pulled out and laid on the grass were not part of a normal tourist's equipment. Although the cylinders looked like the products of an unpleasant twentieth century industry the rest of the paraphernalia that joined them on the grass was more archaic. A roll of embroidered silk cloth, a box of matches, and a slim leather-bound book.
Still working quickly, with the speed of fear of discovery, he unrolled the cloth, revealing a slender knife with an elaborate hilt and engraved blade, a silk cord, a dog whistle, and, wrapped in the tissue in which it had been stored by the British Museum, a silver spoon, swan-necked in the Roman style and with its bowl engraved with the name of one who had been worshipped here long before the Abbey had been built on the site.
He shook his head slightly over the whistle, which was going to present problems. Modern technology could do much to assist such clandestine magical operations but any summoning needed some voice and the whistle presented the least risk.
If it worked.
Checking to see that there were no tourists visible, and that the curator was still in his hut, the man set to work.
Swiftly he inscribed the Circle with the Cord and Wand, touched flame to the contents of each cylinder before placing it at the cardinal points of the sigil, and then stood at the circle's warded centre, the Book in his hands.
The Summoning would be easy. Men had died here. The ground was already soaked in centuries of blood. It needed only one drop of his own, shed with the rune-carved blade, to remind the earth of what it held. And it needed only the Names to call Him, and the whistle to break the barrier.
He began to speak, low, the sibilants drawn out like the sound of serpents sliding over silk.
"Sirassss Etar Bess..aan..arrr, hear me, Assanar..."
The Wand moved, cut air, sliced the Veil.
Beyond the ruins the thin low clouds turned to blood, splitting the setting sun like a razored peach.
That was natural. He had timed the ritual perfectly. Who would notice that red light pooled in the shadows? That the soot-blackened stones were, for an instant, dark not with the pollution of the twentieth century, but with the dried blood of the twelfth?
The moment was passing. It needed the Call to fix the patterns.
The magician lifted the whistle and blew.
In the distance a dog barked. A deep, farmyard warning.
A terrier yap joined it. But he was listening for something closer. Something without sound.
Long moments passed. He glanced at his watch. Another failure? He had been certain that this site would work. There was so little magic left in this world. Barely enough to Summon a taxi...
He knelt to wrap the remnants of the spellcasting in the cloth; and a cold wind touched the back of his neck, raising the short hairs.
I... have... come...
The magician looked up. The voice, slow and deep, reflected the speaker. A dark shape of green and red loomed against the twilight. He reacted to the aura of menace with a sharp, defensive, retort.
"You took your time!"
The air shook with the voiceless reply. What... do you want... of me.
It was not a question. The magician made a gesture which encompassed the whole of the ancient site, vaults and cloisters, towers and tumbled masonry. The twisted shapes of saplings had thrust through the broken stone pavements, a sweep of dark yew and rowan ringed the ruins.
"Guardian, we wanted you back. The Grove is green again." He hesitated, and the next comment held bitter anger. "Spirit of Earth, where have you been?"
The Guardian lifted his elk-crowned head. Rags of velvet dripped from the splayed antlers into the trailing moss of his robe. Clay-red eyes met the magician's.
I needed... worship... The Earth... blood...
"Listen. You have it. Half across the World. Eriu, Gaia, Demeter, Osiris, Cernunnos, Faunus... And as for blood..." he looked suddenly grim, his black eyes were unfathomable, "if you cannot hold this place safely, mine will be the first spilt to wash your kind back to oblivion."
From the entrance the closing bell rang, shrill in the silence.
Soft Autumn rain began to fall.