TURNING MYback on the alligators, I scrambled for the bank. I might have made it if the toad hadn't struck me again with its tongue, this time whipping the tip of it around my throat and spinning me back towards it. The toad hadn't enough power to pull me all the way to the mound, but I landed close to it. As I sprang to my feet, gasping for breath, I spotted the first of the onrushing alligators and knew I'd never make it to the bank in time.
Standing my ground, I prepared to meet the alligator's challenge. My aim was to clamp its jaws shut and keep them closed - it couldn't do much damage with its tiny front claws. But even assuming I could do that, I'd no way of dealing with the rest of the pack, which were coming fast on the lead alligator's tail.
I glimpsed Harkat splashing into the water, rushing to my aid, but the fight would be long over by the time he reached me. The first alligator homed in on me, eyes glinting cruelly, snout lifting as it bared its fangs - so many! so long! so sharp! - to crush me. I drew my hands apart and started bringing them together ?
? when, on the bank to my right, a figure appeared and screeched something unintelligible while waving its arms high in the air.
There was a lightning-bright flash in the sky overhead. I instinctively covered my eyes with my hands. When I removed them a few seconds later, I saw that the alligator had missed me and run aground on the bank. The other alligators were all in a muddle, swimming around in circles and crashing into one another. On the mound, the toad had lowered its head and was croaking deeply, paying no attention to me.
I gazed from the alligators to Harkat - he'd stopped in confusion - then at the figure on the bank. As it lowered its arms, I saw that it was a person - a woman! And as she stepped forward, out of the shadows of the trees, revealing her long straggly hair and body-wrapping ropes, I recognized her.
"Evanna?" I roared in disbelief.
"That was pretty finely timed, even by my standards," the witch grunted, coming to a halt at the edge of the moat.
"Evanna?" Harkat cried.
"Is there an echo?" the witch sniffed, then glanced around at the alligators and toad. "I've cast a temporary blinding spell on the creatures, but it won't last long. If you value your lives, get out of there, and quick!"
"But how - what - where ?" I stuttered.
"Let's talk about it on - dry land," Harkat said, crossing over to join me, carefully skirting the thrashing alligators. "Did you get the globes?"
"Yes," I said, pulling one out from within my shirt. "But how did she?"
"Later!" Harkat snapped, pushing me towards safety.
Suppressing my questions, I stumbled to the bank and crawled out of the mucky water of the moat. Evanna caught me by the back of my shirt and hauled me to my feet, then grabbed Harkat's robes and pulled him up too. "Come on," she said, retreating. "We'd best not be here when their sight clears. That toad has a nasty temper and might bound after us."
Harkat and I paused to consider what would happen if a toad that size leapt upon us. Then we hurried after the departing witch as fast as our weary legs could carry us.
Evanna had established her camp on a grassy isle a few hundred metres from the island of the toad. A fire was burning when we crawled out of the swamp, a vegetable stew bubbling in a pot above it. Replacement clothes were waiting for us, blue robes for Harkat, dark brown trousers and a shirt for me.
"Get out of those wet rags, get dry, and get dressed," Evanna ordered, going to check on the stew.
Harkat and I stared from the witch, to the fire, to the clothes.
"This probably sounds like a stupid question," I said, "but have you been expecting us?"
"Of course," Evanna said. "I've been here for the past week. I guessed you wouldn't arrive that soon, but I didn't want to risk missing you."
"How did you know we - were coming?" Harkat asked.
"Please," Evanna sighed. "You know of my magical powers and my ability to predict future events. Don't trouble me with unnecessary questions."
"So tell us why you're here," I encouraged her. "And why you rescued us. As I recall, you've always said you couldn't get involved in our battles."
"Not in your fight with the vampaneze," Evanna said. "When it comes to alligators and toads, I have a free hand. Now why don't you change out of your damp clothes and eat some of this delicious stew before you pester me with more of your dratted questions?"
Since it was uncomfortable standing therewet and hungry, we did as the witch advised. After a quick meal, as we were licking our fingers clean, I asked Evanna if she could tell us where we were. "No," she said.
"Could you transport Darren - back home?" Harkat asked.
"I'm going nowhere!" I objected immediately.
"You just narrowly survived being - swallowed by alligators," Harkat grunted. "I won't let you risk your - life any?"
"This is a pointless argument," Evanna interrupted. "I don't have the power to transport either of you back."
"Butyou were able to - come here," Harkat argued. "You must be able to - return."
"Things aren't as simple as they seem," Evanna said. "I can't explain it without revealing facts which I must keep secret. All I'll say is that I didn't get here the way you did, and I can't open a gateway between the reality you know and this one. Only Desmond Tiny can."
There was no point in quizzing her further - the witch, like Mr Tiny, couldn't be drawn on certain issues - so we dropped it. "Can you tell us anything about the quest we're on?" I asked instead. "Where we have to go next or what we must do?"
"I can tell you that I am to act as your guide on the next stretch of your adventure," Evanna said. "That's why I intervened - since I'm part of your quest, I can play an active role in it, at least for a while."
"You're coming with us?" I whooped, delighted at the thought of having someone to show us the way.
"Yes," Evanna smiled, "but only for a short time. I will be with you for ten, maybe eleven days. After that you're on your own." Rising, she started away from us. "You may rest now," she said. "Nothing will disturb your slumber here. I'll return in the afternoon and we'll set off."
"For where?" Harkat asked. But if the witch heard, she didn't bother to respond, and seconds later she was gone. Since there was nothing else we could do, Harkat and I made rough beds on the grass, lay down and slept.