Little People: Chapter 2

Merichel Herman, Fiction Editor

The silence following Nascha’s words stretched on for too long.

Kashmir knew from the way her smile started to fade that she had expected some trace of excitement, but he wasn’t ashamed that he couldn’t give it to her. It had become clear very quickly to Kashmir that Nascha’s parents had a lot of unverified, potentially damaging beliefs, and that Nascha believed every word. Those from Nadju—the Northern Country, Dahla’s Mountains—were witches. Witches have magic. Magick is only to be feared or stifled. Never admired. Never accepted.

Kashmir hated it. He hated magick, but he hated those ideas even more.

“Nascha?” It was Eva who had spoken. She had been just as quiet as him, and he had wondered vaguely what she could be thinking. She said hesitantly, “Do you… do you know if they have proof? That she’s really a witch?”

Nascha’s eyebrows furrowed as if she didn’t quite understand. “I’m sure they do.” She backed up, motioning for them to follow. “Come on, I want you to come with me. I’ve never met a witch before.”

Kashmir stood, but didn’t make a move to follow her. “Do witches look any different from any of us?”

Nascha threw her hands up. “I don’t know! I’ve never met one! Just come on.” She grabbed her sister’s arm, pulling her to her feet and dragging her out into the hallway. Eva didn’t try to pull away. After a moment, Kashmir followed.

He’d been to the dungeons once before, when Nascha had forced him to go on a tour of the entire palace with her. It had been too many years since then, and yet he still remembered it perfectly. It had been hideous and horribly familiar all at once, and Kashmir remembered thinking he had stepped beyond the palace altogether.

Down there, the stone was rough, dirt-covered, and in various shades of gray and brown. Barred cells lined either side of the space, with chains attached to the walls to restrain the prisoners. When Kashmir had asked why they needed them if they were already locked up, Nascha had simply said, “Witches need their hands to use magick.”

The dungeons also gave off this unnatural chill, one that seemed to go deeper than the skin. No wonder, Kashmir couldn’t help thinking, that so many go crazy down here.

Nascha led them down, out of the light and into the freezing darkness, and then to a cell at the very end of the hall. She stopped just before she reached it, and Kashmir ran into her. It was too dark to see anything down here. Kashmir heard a click and watched as a fire blazed to life in the lantern nearest them. It was dim, but compared to the prior blackness was blinding. Kashmir blinked spots from his eyes.

He turned, as light flooded the room, to the cell. It took him a moment to spot the girl sitting in the far corner, blending into the background, the shadows and stone. The first things he noticed were her eyes—bright and icy blue and staring directly at them. The girl was unmoving, and something about her face gave the impression of something more animal than human. Like a predator sizing up prey, even if she was the one in the cage.

Slowly, the girl’s features filtered into view, became more prominent as Kashmir adjusted to the darkness. Her skin was golden-brown, her head shaved, forming what Kashmir thought had to be some sort of intricate design, although he was too far away to tell for sure. The girl seemed utterly unbothered by the metal chains around her wrist, or the three people staring at her from beyond the bars of her cell. She stared right back, and Kashmir thought it must have been a challenge.

It was a few moments before anyone moved. They all seemed too shocked that this was real to do anything. Then Nascha approached the cell. Kashmir wanted to stop her, but he couldn’t find the words.

She wrapped her hands around the bars. “Claje,” she said, “That’s what they called you. Witch.” She leaned in and whispered, “Is it true?”

The girl smiled. She angled her head, but said nothing.

Kashmir opened his mouth, then closed it again. Then he said slowly, “She’s Nadju, Nascha. She might not be able to understand you.”

Nascha just shook her head. “She understands. Is it true?” she said again, her voice a little too eager.

This time the girl did speak. She said in Nadju, “You have already made up your mind. Why should I try to convince you differently?”

It had been far too long since Kashmir had heard that language. His mother had been Nadju, and she had spoken to him almost exclusively in her own language. He still understood it, but would never for the life of him remember how to speak it.

Of course, Nascha and Eva knew none of this, so he didn’t say anything. He let Nascha’s eyebrows furrow in confusion, let her ask, “You don’t speak… any Atijan?” and Eva respond with, “Not everyone does, Nascha.”