The Alley

by Xander Tse
Art by Pheobe Wang
Issue: Kalopsia (Spring 2017)

Lorin giggled as he ran with his friends down the dirt road in the middle of town. He grasped the wooden hilt of his own sword and glanced around at the ones his friends were holding, the blunt wooden blades that had bruised him in the past. But it had all been in good spirits: they only sparred because they all wanted to get stronger. I promise to become a soldier and protect the people of our kingdom. Lorin grinned as he remembered saying those words when he and his friends had agreed on what they would grow up to be–the first one knighted would be the winner.

The lively group of children passed the blacksmith’s shop on their way down the road, which was closed for tax collection day. The boys bubbled, giddy with excitement, as they made a beeline to the center of town. They were all imagining the same scene of the King’s soldiers collecting taxes in the town square. Lorin looked up to the soldiers like gods: their shiny helmets hypnotized him as though they were made of gold and their uniforms gave off an aura of justice and order. Lorin gazed longingly at the sheaths that the soldiers wore at their waists and glanced down at his own wooden sword which he carried in his hand.

Lorin gazed ahead, lost in his perfect thoughts of soldiers, when all of a sudden, his foot clipped something in the road and he tumbled towards the ground. His sword flew out of his hand as he threw his arms out in front of his body to brace himself before hitting the dirt with a thud. He looked back on his path and noticed a rock sticking out of the road. It wasn’t very big, but Lorin scolded himself for not paying closer attention to where he was going. He glanced back in the direction of the square, but his friends hadn’t noticed his fall; they were still running as fast as they could, leaving a large dust cloud to engulf Lorin.

A young woman who had seen Lorin’s fall made her way over to him and put down the basket she had been carrying to offer him her help. Lorin gratefully grasped her soft hands and allowed himself to be pulled off the ground and his clothes patted down. The woman asked if Lorin was alright, and he nodded, soothed by her gentle voice. She then walked over to where Lorin’s sword had fallen and retrieved it for him with a smile. Lorin smiled back with admiration at the young woman’s kindness. As he hurried off after thanking the young woman, he thought to himself that the town needed more caring people like her.

Lorin looked down the road and realized that his friends were nowhere to be seen, so instead of staying on the main road, he cut off into an alley, navigating through the gaps between the town’s shops and houses, sprinting as quickly as he could so that he wouldn’t arrive at the square any later than his friends. Approaching one of the last turns until the town square, Lorin felt a warm liquid splash onto his leg and his shoe start to feel moist. He groaned at the idea of stopping so close to his destination, but then imagined the embarrassment he would feel if he appeared in front of the King’s soldiers with his leg soaking wet. Lorin looked around for some cloth to dry himself off, but came upon his reflection in the puddle. His own face stared back. It was dim in the alley, but even so, Lorin quickly noticed the unnaturally reddish tint of the puddle.

Lorin gulped down his fear and peered down in horror at his blood-soaked leg. He felt sticky with sweat all of a sudden, and his heart began pounding in his head. Lorin stumbled forward a few steps, desperate to get out of the alley. Every terrifying scenario of what could have happened there flashed through his mind as he struggled to scramble out of the alley. He turned the corner, and his feet skidded to a halt when he saw the two men before him. Lorin didn’t stay out in the open for a closer look. His fear got the better of him and he silently slipped into a crate that had been discarded into the alley.

A middle-aged man cowered in a corner, begging to be left alone. He was poorly dressed, and it didn’t look like he had gotten any new clothes in the past year at the least. The other man towered over him, so tall that Lorin could only see him from the waist down from where he hid. What Lorin did see were a pair of shiny leather boots on the tall man’s feet that seemed to repel the grime in the alley. His harsh and authoritative voice echoed back to Lorin, the shouts jarred him and he instinctively covered his ears to ease his discomfort as the man kept yelling about taxes.

Lorin kept perfectly quiet and still as the tall man kept yelling, and the other pleaded on his knees. Lorin began to cramp as the argument dragged on, but he didn’t dare move. He was starting to get restless, and he sensed that the tall man was too. Lorin held his breath as the tall man slowly reached down to grasp a rock from the floor of the alley. The man on the ground backed up, and in finding his back against the wall, began to weep and cry out desperately for help. Lorin tried to look away, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the poor man against the wall, as he raised his hand above his head in an attempt to ward off the rock that the taller man held.

Lorin whimpered in the darkness. He wanted to help, but he was too scared. Too afraid to move. He couldn’t run. He bit his thumb to keep himself from crying out every time he saw the rock come down on the man and his bones shook with every scream that escaped the man. The steady thud of rock against flesh sounded almost as loudly as Lorin’s own heart pounding in his skull. All of a sudden, the man in the corner stopped his screams, and Lorin wiped away the tears from his eyes to see what had happened. The man on the ground wasn’t moving. Lorin watched as the tall man’s hand tossed his palm-sized rock farther into the alley and closer to where Lorin hid. Lorin’s eyes followed the rock as it bounced and tumbled, echoing far into the darkness of the alley until it came to a rest a few feet in front of him.

Lorin saw that the rock wore the same color as his leg. He slowly crawled out of his crate as quietly as he could and strained to get a good look at the man as he walked out of the alley. The tall man stepped into the light and out of sight, and the last thing Lorin saw was the man’s shiny helmet, gleaming like gold in the midday sun.