The Three Challenges
written by Clever Clover

After his audience with Raven and Foxglove, Clever Clover was led to a guestroom by Enchantment, the young pony who had shown him to the audience chamber. The guestroom-- or rather guestrooms-- like the rest of Malachite Castle, seemed overdone. The first room had a small, elaborately carved hardwood table and matching chairs. There was also a similarly ornate desk under the sole narrow window in the room. There were two doors, each flanked by beautiful tapestries, leading to other rooms. One door led to a spacious bathroom with antique bronze and porcelain fixtures and a huge marble bathtub. The other led to the actual bedroom with its massive four-poster bed, a high-backed chair with cushions a foot thick, a night stand with antique pitcher and wash basin, and a wardrobe one could almost lose himself in.

"I'll come for you after you have breakfast tomorrow," said Enchantment after Clever Clover had explored the rooms.

"Okay, thanks," the purple pony replied, not sure of the proper etiquette for guests in Gothic castles. That night he slept soundly-- the bed was very comfortable-- and he awoke early the next morning. He found breakfast already set out in the outer room, which consisted of a bowl of fruit, some rolls, cheese, and a large glass of apple juice.

Just as he finished, Enchantment appeared at the door. "Good morning, my prince," she said. "Are you ready to continue your audience with the regent and stewardess?"

* * *

As Clever Clover walked to the audience chamber, he thought about his earlier meeting with the two noble ponies. They had said that he would have to face a Green Knight, a Fire Dragon, and a mystery. The only Green Knight he had ever heard of before was the one from Arthurian myth, and the only way to defeat that knight was to let him chop your head off. Clever Clover didn't like the sound of that. And dragons... he didn't even want to think of that.

"Good morning, my prince," said Raven as Clever Clover entered the audience chamber.

"How did you sleep?" asked Foxglove.

Clever Clover nodded to Raven and Foxglove. "Very well, thank you."

"Are you ready to face the challenges?" Raven asked gravely.

"Um, I've got a few questions."

Foxglove nodded. "Go ahead."

"Well, first, you said that according to the curse, you couldn't crown a king..."


"So why didn't you crown a queen?"

Raven and Foxglove were silent. They looked at each other as if hoping the other would answer. After a moment, Raven regained his stern composure and spoke, "Um, there is no eligible princess at this time. It will still be ten years before the eldest comes of age."

"Well, you've already gone without a king for more than ten years. Why not just wait another ten?"

"There is more to the curse than that," Raven snapped.

"Alright. Can you tell me anything else about the challenges?"

"Only that you must face them alone and unarmed."

"Oh." Clever Clover had hoped for more, but by now he expected things to be difficult.

"You need not face the challenges right away, young prince," Foxglove comforted. "But remember that your people suffer more every day you delay."

"Well, where do I find this 'green knight'?"

"The royal guards will show you the way," said Raven.

* * *

Clever Clover met the royal guards-- all four of them-- in the castle's entry hall. They exited the village in a grandiose, though short, procession. The villagers lined the street and cheered all the way to the edge of town, though they seemed reluctant to follow the prince and his guards out of the village. The guards led Clever Clover through the woods to the base of a steep, rocky path leading up the mountain.

"We can accompany you no further, my prince," said Ironwood, the captain of the guards. "This path leads to the cave where your father saw the Green Knight. We shall await your successful return."

"Thanks," said Clever Clover as he began to climb the trail alone.

He continued onward until the path gave way to a cliff. It was as if the section of the path that Clever Clover was on had been thrust upward ten feet. The cliff, which was cracked and irregular, offered adequate footholds to allow a safe decent for the prince. The trail widened suddenly at the base of the cliff. A jagged crack marred the face of the mountain, and where the crack met the widened path it opened into a dark emptiness– the cave. And in the mouth of the cave stood an intimidating form.

The Green Knight stood motionless, its insect-like body covered in a green carapace. Its forearms, which it held crossed across its chest, were curved blades. On its back was a pair of wings. Clever Clover could barely make out a faint hissing sound, almost a sigh, as the creature breathed.

Clever Clover took stock of his surroundings. Steep cliffs and chasms surrounded the clearing before the cave. The only ways to go were back the way he had come or into the cave, and that meant getting past the Green Knight. “Hm. This is going to take some thought,” Clever Clover mumbled. “There’s no way I’m going to fight my way past this guy.” He stood with his back to the cliff he had just come down, and picked up a pebble and weighed it in his hoof.

The princely pony hurled the pebble with all his might at the Green Knight. The small stone struck right between the creature’s eyes. Clever Clover held his breath; at first the knight did not react in any way. Then it slowly opened one eye. It scanned for the source of the blow to its head. Suddenly the Green Knight spread its wings and launched toward Clever Clover, its blades held high. “Sssscyyyyyyy!” it cried.

The purple prince stood his ground until the last moment and sidestepped just as the knight brought its blades down right where Clever Clover had been just moments ago. “Therrrr!” the attacker cried in fright as it smashed headfirst into the rocks. The Green Knight landed on its feet and turned toward Clever Clover, tried to rase its blades, and finally collapsed.

“Well, that’s one down,” Clever Clover sighed. “Next is the Dragon. What fun.” The purple pony slowly and carefully inched into the mouth of the cave. He expected the air in the cave to be cold and damp– and it was, at first. Then a wave of warm dry air washed over him. The natural chill of the cave returned slowly only to be washed away by another wave of warmth. As Clever Clover proceeded, the waves of warm air became more intense, almost scorching. “If it gets much hotter, I won’t be able to go any further,” the pony complained.

The cave, which had been relatively narrow, widened suddenly into a vast cavern. In the center of the cavern, a dragon slept. It was a great orange beast with leathern wings and a flame on the tip of its tail. Fire shot from its nostrils as it breathed, causing the bursts of hot air. Across the chamber from where Clever Clover stood was a small opening, which the pony assumed led to the third challenge; but first he had to get past the dragon.

“I wonder how soundly that dragon is sleeping?” Clever Clover wondered. “It might be possible to sneak right past him.” The princely pony crept carefully along the wall of the cavern, trying not to make a sound. About halfway around the cavern, though, Clever Clover tripped on something that clattered across the cavern floor. The pony froze. He looked nervously at the sleeping dragon. The creature opened its eyes and glared at the pony. “Chaaa,” it huffed, and went back to sleep.

Clever Clover couldn’t believe what had just happened. “Some guardian,” the prince said. “But this makes things easier.” He strode confidently to what he hoped would be the end of his quest– the third challenge. The mystery.

The passage was very small; Clever Clover had to duck to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling. And it was dark. The only source of light was the flame on the dragon’s tail, and as it became more distant, the light faded. Clever Clover could barely see by the time he reached the end of the passage. The passage opened into another chamber, which was much more massive than the first. The pony couldn’t see the ceiling, walls, or even the floor. He stood on a small platform surrounded by blackness. There was a stone table before him and an open book upon the table. Clever Clover squinted as he tried to read the book in the dim light, but the marks on the pages were alien to him.

“This is some mystery. Maybe I’ll be able to translate it back at the castle; they might have some books on archaic languages.” He tried to lift the book but found it secured tightly to the table. “Now what? I don’t like the idea of sneaking past the dragon and knight again to learn this language and than sneak back in. There has to be a trick to it. Hmm. Foxglove said Bic ‘bound the curse to the land’, and the land is rock, the book is bound to the rock, so the book is the curse and I have to remove the book to remove the curse! So how do I remove the book?”

Clever Clover tugged at the book several times but it didn’t budge. He examined it closely and found, barely perceivable in the low light, a slender silken thread wrapped around the book and table. It was tied in a complex knot underneath the table. It was difficult work in the cramped space under the table and dim light, but Clever Clover persevered and struggled with the knot until it finally came undone. “Well, Bic, it looks like this round goes to me,” said the victorious prince as he closed the accursed book.

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