An irk sat in the cool canopy of an oak tree, watching a tall lad with broad shoulders, somewhere between his late teens and early twenties, skimming stones across a lake. His brown hair was long and a thick beard hid half of his face. He wore a simple white shirt and pair of trousers, both made from the same worn-out material. The garments were ill-fitting and poorly stitched, made for comfort as opposed to high fashion. The scent of summer jasmine laced the warm afternoon air, making the forest feel fresh and clean. It wasn’t the most compelling of sights. The man wasn’t particularly good at casting the tiny rocks into the cool, crystal waters, and most simply sank on the first splash to be reunited with their friends from the shore. This, however, was not the kind of afternoon that demanded a reason, compelling or otherwise, to simply be.
The irk’s head lazily twitched to one side, a sign of frustration that the man appeared to have spent so many years in this beautiful, blessed enclave, and yet had seemingly failed to achieve anything at all – including the mastery of skimming stones. Almost eighty years had passed since the irk had watched him scrabbling up the hill, over rocks and through the thick thorns that hid the entrance, snarling hounds and angry voices at his heels. The lad, then a boy of no more than twelve summers, had uttered the prayer of sanctuary and the spirits had responded. The Guardian trees had moved to hide him and, faced with a wall of wood that his pursuers could not see a way through, the snarling hounds and angry voices had quickly dissipated.
At the time the irk had been excited by the boy’s arrival. It had been many decades, centuries even, since the Guardian trees had last stirred. The boy had uttered words long forgotten, even to the immortals, and in return had received protection granted so very rarely, and never before to a human. The irk took this as a sign of greatness in the child, spending the next five years observing him. He wondered what powers he might have or grow into. But whatever powers or charms the child might have had, the irk eventually conceded, were at best well hidden – so well hidden that eventually the irk lost all interest in him. The child spent his days throwing rocks into the water and eating as much as he could of the food provided to him by the spirits of the grove. So, the irk began to venture out into the world again, returning frequently in the hope that there would be some significant evolution in his absence. If the evolution had ever happened, the irk told himself following each visit in a bid to keep the embers of his own hopes alive, he had not noticed it, and so his visits became fewer and farther between.
There is no easy way to describe irks. If you imagine a human squeezed into a squirrel, visually, you’d be on the right track. They are small, highly energetic, great climbers, talkative and have, for their size, huge bushy tails. They are long-lived, incredibly precocious, and very nosy. All this, combined with their passion for adventure, means they have a near encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, which they are only too happy to share whether asked to or not.
“Eighty years,” the irk muttered to himself. “Eighty years and he’s barely scraped through puberty. Talk about a disappointment.”
He reached out a small paw in a vain attempt to locate a half-eaten nut lying to one side of him, just outside of his peripheral vision, and something suddenly struck him. Because sometimes, no matter how clearly an image is presented to you, it takes a bit of a nudge to really see the whole picture.
“Oh,” the irk gasped, taken aback by what had been under his nose for so many years now. “That’s not right. Not right at all.”
The irk stopped feeling around for his nut and sat bolt upright. He quickly looked around to confirm the position of his snack. Yes, it was odd that a human who must have been around ninety summers old didn’t look a day past twenty, but not so odd it warranted losing food over.
He wondered if the lad had realised that he had now outlived most humans by about thirty years. He hoped he had, but given the lad’s apparent lack of achievements, including that of simply letting his body age, the irk decided there was a good chance it very well may have escaped his notice. There was, of course, only one way to find out. He scampered around and along a series of branches until he was within shouting distance of the lad.
“You’d have thought after all these years you’d be just a little better at that?” the irk shouted in his high-pitched voice, keeping a branch between them so that he would remain out of sight.
The lad, just about to launch another rock across the pond, stopped and looked around. “What?” he said in a tone that suggested a boredom with his current pursuit, as well as the wider pursuit of existence.
“I’m wondering why, after all these years, the best you can manage is just a couple of skips?” asked the invisible irk.
“I did four once,” the lad replied, seemingly unperturbed by the ownerless voice, determined to put right the slur levied at him. “Anyway, what’s it to you?”
“Just interested,” the irk replied genially before adding, “Exactly how old are you?”
Arm already moving, the man launched the rock in his hand. However, what little investment he had in the activity had disappeared the moment the question reached his ears. The stone plopped listlessly into the water some distance from its companions.
“I don’t really know,” he answered slowly, his initial disinterest in the voice and what it had to say starting to change. “Who are you?”
The man’s tone was now loaded with suspicion. He turned towards the trees, taking a step in what he thought was the direction the voice had come from. “What are you doing here?”
“Show yourself,” he demanded, suspicion starting to give way to anger.
The irk toyed with the idea of introducing himself, but there was something about the mix of fear, paranoia even, and anger that was growing in the man’s voice that suggested they might not immediately hit it off. It was clear that something about what he had said had rattled the lad, and he wondered if there might be an opportunity to provoke some sort of activity in the lazy slob. Deciding that discretion was, for the time being, the better part of valour, the irk withdrew. He returned to his half-eaten nut, interested to see what the lad would do next.
The abrupt silence completed the transformation of fear into paranoia. The man had heard a voice in the forest once before, when he had thought that the sanctuary was a safe place, sealed off from the outside world. That voice had taught him there were far more dangerous things in the world than other humans with hounds and pitchforks. It had taught him nowhere was safe; no matter how hidden, how protected, there was always a way in – old ways, dangerous ways, but ways nonetheless.
He continued to stand, but now he turned erratically on the spot trying to see, or hear, anything that might give away any sign of the owner of the new voice. He waited for more words, but there were none. He wondered what the voice wanted. It didn’t sound the same as the one he’d heard before, so many years ago now, still so memorable, and so chilling.
There had been a coldness that had made him shiver. It had pierced his skin and crept into his veins slowing everything down. Each word had hurt him. Each sentence had felt like a jagged blade pulled slowly across his bare skin. Yes, a price had been offered and paid for his services, but his agreement had been extracted.
He had been twenty when the voice had spoken to him. Old enough to be considered a man, but his lonely years in the sanctuary away from the experiences of the world meant he was only a man in years. He still viewed the world beyond with a child’s naivety so, despite the pain in the agreement, there was an excitement in the adventure that followed and discovery in the journey. There was even a fleeting moment of time where a return to the sanctuary seemed impossible.
Then the job was done. The fee was in his pocket, and he celebrated until he lay in the warm glow of booze and exhausted flesh. But disappointment comes just as certainly as the morning after the night before. The warm glow turned into a throbbing headache and a sticky mess with a terrifying bill to be paid.
Realisation dawned with the sun, and although there were no angry voices, or snarling hounds, the silence turned out to be far worse. Blood soaked the bed he lay on. Limbs reached out towards him from every direction, yet their owners’ heads and torsos were no longer attached to them. He felt something hover at his shoulder. Ethereal talons stretched towards him. Hurriedly he made his escape through a window before the scene could be discovered, and ran for the sanctuary, hoping whatever followed him would not be able to find a way in.