Max has had his cauldron bent out of shape by Adolphus the dragon, and Ferocious is pretty sure that means it won’t work. But there’s nothing for it – Max will have to take the bent cauldron to Gore, and do his best. Meanwhile, Olivia has plans of her own, and they involve having some of Max’s special frogspell potion…
The morning Max was to set off for Castle Gore was grey, cold and rainy. Max looked out of his window and shrugged. The weather looked as dismal as he felt. He had three days of hard riding with Sir Boris the Most Boring Knight in Christendom, and then he would be stuck in the cold misty lakeland of Gore, in the forbidding castle of Lady Morgana le Fay, for six whole weeks, trying not to get himself turned into anything unpleasant. Sir Bertram had made it clear that if he wanted to learn magic when he came back, he would have to get his Certificate of Spell Mastery at the end of the course. But getting that would be almost as difficult as coming home in one piece. Lady Morgana had been sweet as honey when she awarded Max the prize of a place at her Spell School, but he wasn’t fooled. The kingdom’s most powerful sorceress had a definite grudge against him, and just thinking about her hard pale blue eyes and her tinkling icicle laugh made him want to hide under the bedclothes and miss the trip north altogether.
He trudged to the stable to get his horse, Arnold, saddled up ready to go, wishing that Olivia and Adolphus were coming with him. But Sir Bertram had flatly refused to let her go, and Max didn’t think even Olivia was going to be able to get round him.
‘Hey, Arnold,’ he said gloomily as he opened the stable door. Arnold blew a friendly horsey sort of greeting that sounded a bit like, ‘Aha, oats on their way then?’ and shook his mane. As Max emptied a few buckets of oats into the trough, Olivia poked her head round the corner.
‘All packed then, Max? Got everything?’ ‘Yeah, I think so…’ said Max, looking around at his assorted bags.
Olivia sidled in and asked nonchalantly, ‘So did you ever get round to brewing up any more frogspell antidote?’
Max frowned at her. She was clearly trying to make her inquiry look totally innocent, but had failed utterly. ‘Why would I want frogspell antidote?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Olivia airily. ‘Just, well, you never know. What if you meet an enchanted frog you don’t fancy kissing? Or turn yourself into a frog and then can’t turn back?’
Max narrowed his eyes at her. What was Olivia up to? She wasn’t planning anything silly, was she? He glanced at his small pack of spell stuff and saw the two potion bottles poking out of one side. Just to be on the safe side, he took them out and checked. Yes – there was the frogspell, nearly a full bottle of blue gunk he’d brewed up just last month, and the newly brewed green antidote. None was missing and he knew Olivia couldn’t make it herself, so it looked like she was just playing some game or other. He shrugged.
‘Yes, I’ve got them both. So I guess if things get too bad in Gore I can always turn myself into a frog and hop home. Should only take me – oh – about three hundred years to get back. But I suppose at least I’d be alive.’
Olivia looked sympathetic. ‘It’ll be all right, Max,’ she said. ‘You’ll be fine. You’ll get the certificate; you’re really good at spells. And then we only have to get me through the Squires’ Challenge and we’ll both be doing what we want!’
Max laughed. Olivia had told him the previous day about the promise she’d extracted from Sir Bertram. ‘Olivia,’ he said. ‘You do know that you’ve got less chance of winning than Adolphus has of being awarded the prize for Brainiest Dragon in the Kingdom? You’re very good, for a girl, but you’ve only trained with me, and I’m not exactly the world’s best sword master.’
‘No, you’re pretty much the world’s worst,’ agreed Olivia happily. ‘But that’s okay, Max, because I have a plan…’ and she tapped the side of her nose with her finger and looked mysterious.
Max wondered what the plan was. Did it have anything to do with her strange interest in the frogspell? He was just about to ask, when they were both distracted by the sudden appearance of a small white fluttering bird, which swooped through the stable door and hovered in front of him expectantly. Ferocious poked his head out of Max’s tunic, impressed.
‘Well, well, Max, it’s a swift, for you. You’re going up in the world!’
Olivia’s eyes widened. A swift was a magical note. Neither she nor Max had ever received one before, although they had seen a few – Lady Griselda occasionally used them for really important messages. Max reached out, and the swift fluttered down and crumpled into a small folded piece of creamy white parchment in his hand. He opened it. The message was addressed to him and written in a clear, firm hand. Max read it aloud.
Dear Max, I am sure you are feeling a little apprehensive about your forthcoming visit to the castle of a certain lady. Please do not be. I have a good friend who will be at the castle keeping a close eye out for you, and besides, I shall be there myself for the final week – King Arthur is making an official visit to his northern borders and will be staying at Gore. The lady will be anxious that nothing should happen to prevent this visit, certainly not any mysterious or suspicious accidents to any of her young novices. So be of good heart! And – if you can – keep your eyes and ears open. I fear she is plotting something for Arthur’s visit but I cannot find out what, and the king, as usual, will hear nothing against his half-sister. If you need me urgently, this swift has one more journey in it, and will find me wherever I am.
As Max read, the message faded, and he was left with a blank piece of parchment, quivering slightly as if ready to leave immediately. Max knew that, thrown into the air with a few simple words, it would turn back into the white bird and soar off to wherever Merlin was to be found. He folded it carefully, stowed it in his belt pouch and then looked up at Olivia.
‘Well!’ she said, solemnly. ‘Merlin!’
Max felt rather similar. Merlin! He thought of his bright, hawk-like eyes and his lean brown face. With his dark clothes and long sword, he looked like just any other hardened knight, one of King Arthur’s many battle-weary fighting men – but he was the most powerful magician the kingdom had ever known. And he had sent a magical message to Max! Not only that, but he had asked him to keep an eye on Morgana le Fay, and given him the means to contact him if he needed to. Max suddenly felt considerably less small and scared about the trip to Gore. He was actually starting to feel a trickle of excitement.
‘Well, that’s all very well I’m sure,’ said Ferocious, cleaning his whiskers, apparently unimpressed. ‘Good to have Merlin on our side, of course. But who is this friend, exactly? And Merlin’s not coming till the final week, is he? Still have to make sure we don’t get chopped into small pieces before then.’
Max grinned. ‘Oh come on, Ferocious. He seems pretty sure she won’t try anything. She wants Arthur to come and visit. She doesn’t want anyone suspecting she’s an evil old hag, does she?’
‘Well, that’s what he says,’ sniffed Ferocious. ‘We’ll just have to hope he’s right.’
‘Ferocious, it’s Merlin we’re talking about here. He probably knows what he’s talking about,’ said Olivia, exasperated.
‘Hmm, well, that’s all right then, obviously,’ said Ferocious. ‘I’ll just go back to sleep. Wake me when you’re in danger of being zapped into a dung beetle, Max, and I’ll try and make sure the other dung beetles don’t eat you.’ And he buried himself back in Max’s tunic.
But Max refused to be downcast. Not with Merlin keeping an eye out for him. He felt as if a particularly indigestible and stodgy lump of pudding in his stomach had been dissolved with a cool bubbling drink of pure spring water. Max patted Arnold and started to saddle him up. Whatever happened, he was determined that he would discover what Morgana was up to. He was so busy thinking of how he would foil Morgana’s plot, and reveal all to Merlin when he saw him again, that he didn’t notice Olivia gently remove the potion bottles from his saddlebags and replace them with two identical ones.