The lake was calm. What breeze there was came from the north, which aided Clever Clover as he rowed. Despite the ease of the endeavor, the purple pony was not at ease. Bic the imp had lured him to this lake. And the calm waters of the lake could hide all manner of danger. All he could do was row on and hope that on the isle he could finally rid himself of Bic’s torment.
As he came near the shore of the isle-- near enough to smell the pines-- the wind shifted to the south and picked up. Clever Clover struggled as he rowed into the wind. “Bic, you’ll not stop me, not since I’ve come this far!” he said through clenched teeth. He leaned heavily on the ores. The small boat progressed slowly but surely toward the shore. After what seemed like hours of fighting the wind, the keel of the boat struck bottom. He had made it.
Clever Clover pulled the boat onto a small beach and recalled Farfetch’d. There was a path leading away from the beach through the trees. “Well, that’s convenient,” the pony mumbled. The path through a mixed forest of oak, pine, cedar, and yew rose slowly from the beach toward a cleft in the large hill-- a mountain, almost-- that dominated the isle. Several tendrils of smoke rose from the cleft. “That smoke could mean civilization, or another of Bic’s tricks. In any case, I don’t have a lot of options,” Clever Clover said to himself as he started up the trail. He expected to confront some terrifying apparition around every turn. Every time he found himself alone, though, and he almost wished he would encounter some monster and be done with it.
Finally, something did appear from around the bend-- the cleft, and the source of the smoke. Clever Clover stood atop a ridge overlooking the cleft, which was almost a valley between two arm-like ridges projecting from the hill. Nestled within the cleft was a quaint village. On the far side of the village, where the ridges met, was a castle of greenish stone that was built into the side of the hill. The buildings of the village had whitewashed walls and roofs of thatch.
Clever Clover walked cautiously into the village. The main street was lined with shops, but there were no signs of life save for the smoke. A flash of motion caught Clever Clover’s eye. It looked like a baby pony ducking into an alley. The purple pony continued down the main street. A door squeaked behind him. He turned to see a pony peeking sheepishly out of one of the shops. There were other ponies watching from the windows. “ ‘Allo!” said Clever Clover as cheerfully as possible. “There’s no need to be shy. Come out. I won’t hurt you.”
The ponies began to emerge from their homes and shops slowly. They kept their distance from Clever Clover while whispering to each other and glancing nervously at the stranger in their village. “Uh, could you tell me--” Clever Clover began to say before one of the Isle Ponies cut him off in a hoarse whisper.
“They’ll be expectin’ you at the castle, I figure.”
Clever Clover looked over his shoulder toward the hillside castle. “The castle, eh? Thanks.”
“It’s my pleasure,” said the other pony with a bow.
Clever Clover turned to resume his path down the main street, which led right to the castle gate. The entire length of the street was lined with ponies now, whispering, glancing, and bowing as Clever Clover walked past. Something strange is going on here, Clever Clover thought. Either this is part of Bic’s game, or they have me confused with someone else. The ponies lined the street all the way to the castle gate, and a crowd followed behind Clever Clover, always maintaining a polite distance. The gate itself was flanked by two large stallions, one dark green and the other dark blue, holding long hafted elaborately decorated halberds.
At the sight of Clever Clover, the guards genuflected. “Welcome home, your highness!” they said in unison, with booming voices.
That tears it! They definitely think I’m someone els;, but if it’ll get me some answers, I might as well play along, for now.
The castle gates opened. A young red mare greeted him. “Welcome home, your highness. The Regent and Stewardess await you in the audience chamber. Please follow me.”
Clever Clover followed the red pony through the grandiose Gothic halls of the castle. Paintings on the walls depicted noble-looking ponies, many of them holding weapons-- swords, spears, axes, and the like. One pony, who bore a striking resemblance to Clever Clover, bore an unusually large and intimidating axe. The painting nearest the audience chamber door looked almost familiar to Clever Clover, like something from his distant past that he had forgotten. The painting also featured the axe he had noticed earlier, though this pony held it much less threateningly.
The young pony guide opened the doors to a grand, semi-circular chamber. Along the circular wall, high windows hung with heavy curtains admitted surprisingly little light. Torches along the flat wall illuminated the room with an eerie light. Two large ponies stood across the room from where Clever Clover entered.
The smaller of the two (a red and white mare who was still half a head taller than Clever Clover) began the introductions. “Welcome, my prince. I am Foxglove, Stewardess of Malachite Castle. This is Raven, Reagent of the Isle.” She indicated the huge black stallion standing next to her. He wore a crimson cloak and a silver pin set with an emerald stone.
“Ah, yeah, nice to meet you,” said Clever Clover, nervously.
“Do not worry,” said Raven in a deep, yet strangely soothing voice. “You have been away for most of your life. It is natural that you are confused. Allow me to explain. You are the son of a king, the last king of the isle. Before you were born, a terrible curse befell your father and all his kingdom.”
Clever Clover almost fainted. He staggered and mumbled, “Bic!” Then to himself he said, “Stay calm, this is probably all part of his scam; or could it be true?”
“Aye, that imp was the perpetrator of the curse. He stole all hope, joy, and happiness from the land-- and from your father’s heart.”
“You seem to have shocked the prince,” Foxglove interrupted. “Perhaps you should slow down.”
Raven scowled at Foxglove impatiently.
“I... I’m alright,” stammered Clever Clover. He wasn’t sure what to make of it; but for the time being he would listen, at least long enough to figure out what was going on. “Please continue,” he said.
Raven bowed. “Very well, my prince. Bic dictated that no new king would be crowned until the curse was lifted; and that only the king, or his kin, could lift the curse. It is because of the curse that when you were young, you and your betrothed were sent to Friendship Gardens to ensure your safety-- and the safety of your line.”
“Um, did you say ‘betrothed’?” Clever Clover stammered.
“Yes,” replied Foxglove. “Your marriage was arranged at your birth, to guarantee a suitable heir if you were unable to break the curse.”
“ ‘If’? Then this betrothal thing is dependant on the curse?”
“You sound as if you are discouraged at the thought of marriage.”
“Well, uh, not marriage overall, just this prearranged thing.”
“Oh, do not worry. It was merely a precaution and would not be enforced unless it seemed necessary. But now we have more pressing matters that require our attention.”
“Aye, young prince!” boomed Raven. “The curse should be your main concern at the moment! You must not allow yourself to be distracted!”
“Calm yourself, Raven. Allow the prince to be pony; we cannot expect more of him than that.”
“Well, about that curse,” said Clever Clover. “How am I supposed to stop it?”
Raven explained, “Your father struggled with that very question to his last days. He sought the wisest counsel in the land and studied many arcane texts. When he discovered the solution, it was too late for him. We have held the wisdom that he discovered to pass on to you when the time was right.”
“And the time is now right,” said Foxglove. “Your father discovered that Bic had played his game many times before, and was able to learn the pattern of his tricks. There are three challenges that must be overcome to release the curse. The first is the Green Knight, whom your father saw with his own eyes. The knight fights without sword or armor, and yet is a match for any warrior. He guards the entrance to an ancient cave high on the mountain where Bic bound the curse to the land. Within the cave dwells the second challenge, the Fire Dragon. Little more is known of this challenge. The third challenge is the Mystery, which can only be overcome by confronting it directly.”
“Gee, that sure cleared things up,” mumbled Clever Clover. “Okay, assuming I pass all these challenges, how does that release the curse?”
“That, my young prince, is the Mystery,” replied Raven.