Startled, Carling and Higson jumped and turned around. A short, bent-over creature with a large nose protruding from a wrinkled, whiskered face limped toward them, leaning on a crooked cane. His clothes were colorful, in sharp contrast to the gray walls that surrounded them. His feet were exceptionally large and covered in boots with turned-up toes. He was staring at them with large round eyes the color of the sky. Bushy eyebrows moved upward and downward as he hobbled toward them.
The two Duende said nothing as the creature shuffled through the moss, getting closer to them with each short step. Carling was both terrified and fascinated by the strange creature.
“I am the proprietor of this cave,” he said. He smiled, but his smile disappeared almost as quickly as it came. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Carling swallowed. Mustering what little courage she could find, she responded. “We are looking for the Tommy Knocker by the name of Shim.”
The creature sucked in a quick breath and narrowed his eyes, examining her closely. “I ask again. Who are you?”
“I am Carling, from the village of Duenton. This is my friend, Higson, from the same village. We have been sent here by the Wizard of Crystonia to collect the Stone of Courage.”
At this, the creature lifted himself up to his full height, making him only slightly taller than Carling, and roared a great roar from deep within his chest. The stalactites and stalagmites shook. Pebbles fell from the ceiling and sank into the moss. The few bats still in the cavern left their perches and circled over Carling’s and Higson’s heads. The creature raised his hands toward the bats and said, “It is okay, my pets. I will handle this.” Then he dropped his gaze back to the young intruders and, with teeth clenched, said in a voice that sounded more like a growl, “I want you to leave. Leave this instant!”
Carling and Higson scrambled to their feet. “We cannot leave until we have the S-S-Stone of Courage,” Carling said, wishing more than ever for some of the courage she hoped the stone would provide.
Instantly, the creature spun around. When he was facing them once again, he was bent over as he had been when they first saw him. His long fingers clutched the cane with both hands and his smile reappeared. “Forgive me. Forgive me, my dears, for being so rude. It is I that you are seeking. I am Shim.”
“You? You’re Shim?” asked Higson.
The creature bowed. “At your service.”
“Then you know Vidente,” Carling stated.
“Yes. Quite well.”
“And he has entrusted you with the care of the Stone of Courage?” Carling asked.
Shim’s smile disappeared again. But this time, he extended his hand toward Carling. “It is my pleasure to meet you. I knew that one day you, or someone else, would come seeking my stone.”
Carling took his hand. She started, for it was as cold as the hand of a corpse. “Then you will give it to us?” she asked as a shiver ran through her body.
“Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. I shall have to decide later.”
“How much later?” Carling said, releasing his hand.
His eyes narrowed again and his eyebrows twitched up and down. “When I have sufficiently tested you to see if you are worthy.” He clucked his tongue and muttered, “Such a pity. Such a pity,” he said, seemingly to only himself.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish