Chapter 2

The Rangers travelled through the darkness away from the smouldering remains of the destroyed village. Once stars instead of smoke covered the sky, Halbarad, striding at the head of the group raised his hand, signalling to the company of men to halt. Turning, he looked behind at Strider questioningly. "Will this do for the night? It is not much, but it is sheltered from the wind, and I believe there is a spring not far from here where we can replenish our water supply." He gestured to a small clearing visible between the trees.

Estel's eyes scanned the area as he stepped into the small clearing in the forest. Then he nodded in satisfaction. "Indeed it will, Halbarad."

With a brief spate of orders, the older ranger instructed a few of the men to start a small fire and help prepare the small rations of food they carried with them. Those who were not involved in the preparations of the camp gladly dropped to the forest floor with sighs of relief, shedding their packs from their backs and unbuckling weapons.

Estel sat down with his back against a tree, careful of the precious bundle he carried in his arms.

"Strider, is there anything I can get you?" Tyrion, another of the rangers, stepped up beside his leader, his eyes taking in the sight of the small unconscious child wrapped in the large cloak nestled in Estel's arms.

Estel looked up. "Tyrion," he murmured in greeting. "Could you find a waterskin and some fresh bandages? Find my medicinal kit and take the small knife and place it in the fire if you would? The child's leg needs attending. I fear I may need to stitch it."

Tyrion nodded and left to gather the items that Estel had requested. He passed by Halbarad, stopping to ask the older ranger for his waterskin and where he could find Estel's pack.

"How is the child?" Halbarad asked as he set down the two packs he had been carrying-his and Estel's.

"Still unconscious from what I could tell, the poor little thing," Tyrion replied.

Halbarad shook his head as he rummaged through his pack searching for the waterskin before opening the other pack and digging around for the required medicinal kit Estel carried in his pack.

"How could anyone leave a child to starve?" asked Tyrion sadly.

Halbarad stood up, the waterskin in his hand, along with Estel's pouch of herbs and a small bag of other medical supplies. "Maybe no one intended to leave the child, Tyrion. Under the circumstances, anything could have happened. We will know more when the child recovers, Valar willing that she will. Now, was there anything else that Strider requested?"

Tyrion shook his head. "No, only clean bandages. I was going to ask Derent if he had any to spare."

"No need, I have some here. I'll take these things over to Strider. I want to see for myself how the little one fares." Tyrion nodded and moved away, but Halbarad's voice called him back. "Tyrion, whenever that stew is ready, have someone set aside a small bowl half-full and let it cool. Perhaps the child will eat something when she awakens."

"I shall see to it myself, Halbarad," Tyrion assured the older ranger.

Estel looked up as Halbarad knelt down beside him. Halbarad inclined his head towards the child. "How is she?" he asked as he set the things Estel had asked for down beside the other ranger on the ground.

"Still unconscious, I am afraid." Tenderly, Estel brushed his fingertips across Darrell's brow. "And she has a slight but rising fever. I need to give her something to break it before it gets any worse." He glanced at the herb pouch Halbarad set down beside him. "There should be something in there to help combat the fever. I will need her to drink some water for me. Darrell…Darrell, awaken, little one," he called softly, gently trying to rouse the child.

A low moan escaped her lips, her head weakly turning from side to side as she struggled to return to consciousness.

Estel eased her upright in his arms, leaning her back against his chest and allowing her head to rest against his shoulder. "Easy, child…shhh…it's alright, you're safe now," he murmured, brushing her hair back from her face. "Can you hear me, Darrell?"

Weakly, Darrell reached out for something to hold onto. Her small fingers curled around the material of Estel's leather overcoat as she struggled to open her eyes.

"Come on, Darrell, open your eyes for me," Estel coaxed persistently, rubbing her cheek gently while Halbarad looked on. Slowly, Darrell's eyes cracked open. She clutched at Estel's arm, not quite aware of her surroundings. Her eyes were half-lidded as she gazed around, not really seeing anything. Her breathing was slightly hitched.

"Shhh…easy there." Estel's soft voice caught her attention as he brushed his hand across her forehead, the coolness of his skin soothing her hot forehead. She turned her head around slowly and, with dazed gray eyes, gazed up at the man that held her.

Estel gently cupped her face and brushed his thumb over her cheekbone. "You are not quite with us yet, are you?" he murmured, pulling Darrell's head back down to rest against his chest. The young girl allowed him to do so, unable to resist him.

Crouching down beside Estel, Halbarad reached over and tipped Darrell's chin up, studying her face. "She needs to drink; she is dehydrated. Her pupils are dilated, and it is most likely that she is suffering from a headache." He picked up the waterskin and unstoppered it before handing it to Estel. "Try and encourage her to drink, even if it is only a few sips."

Taking the waterskin, Estel brought it to the child's lips and tilted it slightly, encouraging her to drink. At first some of the water dribbled down Darrell's chin and she started to cough as she swallowed it down the wrong way, but Estel waited patiently, patting her back carefully.

Darrell ceased coughing and slowly shook her head, reaching out for the waterskin. Estel obliged and let the small child clasp her hands around his, pulling the container closer to her mouth. The water eased her parched throat and seemed to help clear Darrell's mind a little, for she gazed around with a little more awareness than she had before.

Estel and Halbarad waited, allowing the child to take in her surroundings, not wanting to startle her. Gradually, Darrell came to realise that she was being held by someone. A quick glance behind her told her it was the man who had rescued her from the destroyed building. Although this man – Estel was his name – had told her she was safe, Darrell could not bring herself to trust him…not yet. Immediately, she began to squirm away, desperately trying to get out of Estel's hold.

Estel instantly released her, as he did not want to frighten her. Immediately, Darrell scrambled out of his lap and came to a halt a few feet away, crouched low on the ground with her hands wrapped protectively around her injured leg. "Who are you?" she whispered, her voice full of fear.

Estel tilted his head to the side, pausing before answering, "I am Estel, the one who rescued you from the building." He went to move, but Halbarad's firm hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Wait," the older ranger whispered softly, "and let the child come to us instead."

The two men waited, watching the small girl's eyes roam over them as she took everything in, as young children were wont to do.

"It's alright, Darrell," said Estel softly. "You have nothing to be afraid of. You will not come to any harm here, see?" He held up both his hands in a gesture of peace. "This is Halbarad, a good friend of mine. He won't hurt you either, I promise you. I can take care of you. Will you trust me?"

Halbarad stood to his feet, and, immediately, Darrell cowered away. However, the older ranger didn't come anywhere near her. Instead, he stepped over to his pack and unwrapped a pile of blankets. He then turned and came back over to where Estel knelt. All the while Darrell kept her gaze fixed on him, her body tense, ready to flee. He smiled kindly at her as he laid out the bedroll near the fire."Here, little one, will you not sit on this? It is by far more comfortable that the cold, hard ground." He patted the blankets encouragingly.

Darrell hesitated for a moment as she considered what to do. An icy wind blew through the trees and the child shivered violently. Her limbs were becoming cold and very sore and her head was hurting terribly. She could hardly move with the pain in her leg and she had no idea where she was or how far they had travelled.

"Darrell, please come over here," Estel pleaded kindly. "You are shivering. Come over here closer to the fire and get warm." He could visibly see the child shaking and was concerned. "Come. You need to be warm or you will get ill."

What choice did she have? Worried that if she did not comply with what the men were asking of her she might be forced to obey, Darrell got to her feet unsteadily and stumbled over to the bedroll, limping heavily. Estel caught her and gently lowered her to the ground, drawing a blanket around her shoulders. "There, that is better, is it not?"

Darrell nodded shyly. "Thank you."

The man nodded in welcome. He looked up as he caught sight of Tyrion coming across the camp, a bowl in his hands. He glanced at the child with a small smile. "How do you feel about some food?"

A few minutes later, Darrell sat curled up on the bedroll beside the small campfire with a bowl of warm stew in her hands. Cautiously, she looked up at the ranger sitting in front of her, wariness in her eyes. Although the tall, rugged man had shown her nothing but kindness, the little girl still felt uneasy and afraid around him. She had learned long ago never to trust anyone easily. It more often led to hurt and fear than anything else. Her eyes paused momentarily on his face, taking in the dark, tangled hair, the pale, strong face, and sharp gray eyes, the wisdom and kindness in their depths.

Estel smiled kindly at her. "You needn't be afraid, little one. No one here will harm you," he murmured quietly, noticing how the child's eyes kept darting around and how she would jump at the smallest of noises. "I will not harm you." He reached out with one hand, but stopped as Darrell pulled away from him slightly. "Alright, I won't come near. You eat your stew. It's good for you and you need it." Estel moved away and settled his hands in his lap, his eyes fixed lightly on the child as he took out his pipe and began filling it.

Darrell dipped her head and ate a few spoonfuls of the stew. All the while, she kept one eye on Estel as if she was afraid that he would advance on her. She grimaced as her stomach churned against the food, and she looked up at the ranger once again, checking to see if he was still watching her. He was. Although the man-Estel-had promised that she would not come to any harm, she was still jumpy around him.

Estel heart filled with sadness as he noted the sorrow-tinged wariness glistening in the young girl's eyes. The horror Darrell must have witnessed was far more than any child should ever have to see. "Little one?" he ventured softly, taking a chance and reaching out towards her.

Darrell's head jerked up as a large and calloused, though gentle hand touched her knee, and she found herself gazing into a pair of silver-grey eyes not unlike her own. "Y-yes?" she stammered, nearly upsetting the bowl clasped in her small hands.

Estel took away the bowl of half-finished stew, then gently took one of her smaller hands in his. Darrell made to pull it away, but Estel held onto her gently, but firmly. "Peace, little one. You are safe here, I promise. Trust me."

Darrell paused for a moment before she stilled and let her hand rest in the larger one of the ranger.

Estel smiled again, trying to put the young girl at ease. "You said your name was Darrell, correct?"

Darrell nodded slowly. "Y-yes."

"That is a lovely name. Do you know it means beloved or little darling?" Estel asked, trying to make light conversation and distract the child from her fear of him.

Darrell shook her head. "No." She played and fidgeted with her fingers as she spoke. "Aida just always called me that. Uncle always just called me 'Brat' or...or...other things."

Estel tilted his head to the side, studying the child before him in the light of the fire. "Who is Aida?"

"A… mama's friend… looked after me… when uncle hurt me," Darrell stuttered quietly. Her voice was quiet and broken, causing Estel to strain his ears to hear her properly.

Estel frowned, "Your uncle hurt you? How?"

"Yes, when I was bad." Darrell whispered. She just shook her head then and wouldn't answer the second question.

"He did, did he?" Estel pressed his lips into a thin line and gently squeezed the child's hand. "I wouldn't believe what your uncle told you. Your name means 'Beloved,' and it is a beautiful name." A dislike for the child's so-called uncle was rapidly forming in his mind.

"I never told Uncle what Aida called me. I was scared." Darrell rubbed her face against the head of the small toy she still held. Halbarad had handed it to her when she had woken, and she had refused to put it down.

Estel smiled and pointed to the stuffed bear Darrell held close to her. "And who is this?" The bear was made out of a soft brown material and had three buttons sewn onto its face: two for the eyes and one for a nose. It was rather sweet, and one could imagine the mother of the little girl sitting by the fire sewing the small bear for her daughter.

Darrell shrugged. "He never really had a name. I just always called him… Teddy."

"A very fine name." Estel nodded solemnly, fighting back a smile. Then, after a pause, he asked carefully, "Do you know what became of your uncle?"

"He is...dead?" she asked slowly.

Estel nodded. "It is most likely that he is. I am sorry, little one." He was surprised when Darrell frowned, the space between her eyebrows crinkling.

"He is—was… a bad man. I don't like him," she whispered. "I had to stay with him since…since…Mama and Papa went away…and they never came back."

"Your parents went away?" Estel frowned. Surely her parents wouldn't have abandoned their child in the hands of a cruel man.

"They're dead." Darrell said simply, looking up at him with large, empty eyes. "They went away and never came back. Uncle said they were dead."

Estel released a slow breath. "I am sorry, little one."

"It is not your fault." Darrell paused and looked away. Estel knew that the child was reluctant to talk, to tell him, a man she hardly knew of her past. He could understand that. But his ears caught the last words of a whisper from Darrell's lips.

"It was my fault."

"What was your fault, little one?"

Darrell's head shot up, fear in her eyes. She gazed at the man for a moment, but just shook her head and went silent. Then she continued talking quietly.

"When the…bad things…came, Uncle tried to hide in the house, but they found him. There was a fight and then the flames came." Darrell looked up at Estel. " I am not sad if he is dead. I am wicked to think such things."

"No, no, little one. You are not wicked." Estel shook his head, pulling the small girl closer to him even though she tried to pull away. "You are not wicked; don't even think that…What was your uncle like?"

Darrell looked at him for a long moment, sizing up whether or not to tell this stranger. "Mean," she whispered. "I had to clean the house and stay quiet, and if I didn't, he would…" Here, she stopped talking, unsure.

"He would what, child?" Estel prompted, leaning in towards her.

Darrell looked up over the head of her toy. "Hit me," she whispered. "I didn't mean to be bad." A tear slipped down her face. "I really didn't."

"No," Estel soothed, brushing his thumb across her knuckles. "You are not bad, Darrell. You are only a child."

"I was trapped in that room when the roof fell on top of me. I-I was s-so… scared an'… an'…" Darrell choked on a sob as another tear rolled down her check, the events of the last few nights catching up with her. She started to shake as she sobbed into her stuffed bear.

"Shh, little one," Estel reached out and tried to touch her head, but Darrell shied away in fright. "Please...d-don't.." she sobbed, cowering down.

"It's alright, Darrell. Nothing will harm you here, I promise." Estel had never had many dealings with small children, but he could not deny how much he wanted to hold Darrell close and shield her from the fears that haunted her.

Hearing her name seemed to calm the child, and her sobs slowly quietened. Estel held out his hands to her. "I will not hurt you; you have my word… will you not to come to me?"

Darrell paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on the older man's. Slowly, very slowly, she inched her way over to Estel and placed her tiny hands in his much larger ones. Estel smiled and was rewarded with a rather watery attempt from the child in front of him.

"Now," Estel murmured, "can you tell me what happened that night?"

Darrell sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "There was a big moon in the sky."

"A full moon?" Estel interrupted her. "A big circle?"

Darrell nodded. "Yes. It was the same as every other night. Uncle yelled at me to go to bed. I tried to sleep but I couldn't. Then there was a lot of yelling and shouting…and banging." She looked at Estel. "The door was broken down and the bad things came in. I tried to hide. I heard Uncle shouting. It was quiet for a long time after that. Then, it got really hot, and there were flames all around… I… I… don't remember much else." She sniffed again. "I'm sorry."

"Shhh, it's alright," Estel murmured. "You remembered very well." He noticed Darrell's head dropping and her eyelids closing. "Come, little one, it's time you slept. You are very tired, and you need to rest," Estel gently coaxed. As if on cue, Darrell yawned widely. The ranger smiled and patted the blanket. "Come, little one, lay down your head and sleep."

Still clutching her bear tightly, Darrell crawled onto the soft bedroll and lay down, watching the ranger intently with sleepy eyes. Estel covered her up with a blanket, tucking the edges in around her. "Sleep well, little Darrell," he whispered, brushing a finger across her brow.

The child closed her eyes with a sigh, and within moments she had fallen asleep, worn out with fear and exhaustion.

The fire crackled and snapped as the flames danced up into the air, casting a warm golden glow around the small glade in the forest where the rangers had set up camp. The stars twinkled in the darkness of the night sky. There were no clouds overhead that night to block them, the storm having blown them all away.

Estel sat on a broken log that had been shifted close to the fire. He was hunched over, his elbows resting on his knees and his pipe in his mouth. The ranger's shaggy hair fell around his face like a dark curtain, shielding him from onlookers. He looked to be staring at his feet, but in truth, Estel was staring at the small, skinny bundle lying asleep beside him.

Darrell was curled up on a bedroll on the ground beside Estel's feet, several blankets covering her against the chill of the night air despite the fever running through her. The tattered old bear was clutched tightly in her arms. Even in sleep, she refused to let go of her precious toy.

His anger towards the child's supposed uncle had grown as he listened to Darrell. The thought that someone could hold an innocent child like a prisoner in a house and treat her like a slave sickened him. It should never happen to her, to anyone.

Kneeling down beside her, Estel's hands gently moved over her, checking her small body for any further injuries. But other than discovering a few light scratches and bruises that he knew would fade and heal in a few days, he was relieved to find no other major injuries. Poor little thing, he thought as he applied a light salve to one of the more deeper cuts on her skinny arm. His fingers brushed over her forehead. The fever has risen slightly, he mused as his sharp eyes caught sight of her dry and cracked lips. He ran his hands over her torso, feeling the small ribs sticking out prominently under the skin, the result of little or no food.

Darrell shivered slightly under his touch. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out his own blanket and draped it over the sleeping child, shielding her from the chilly night air. "Easy there, shh… sleep...just sleep," he murmured as he sat back on the log. He looked up as he sensed Halabard approaching.

"How is she?" the older ranger asked, inclining his head towards Darrell, who shifted in her sleep and rolled over.

Estel sighed and removed his pipe from his mouth. "According to her, the Orcs attacked on a night with a full moon. She remembered looking out of the window and seeing it before the house collapsed around her. "

Halbarad glanced up sharply. "Estel, you do realise that the last full moon was four nights ago this night. Are you saying that the child was trapped alone and scared, in that burnt-down building for well over three days?" He shuddered. "It doesn't bear even thinking about."

Estel didn't reply. He reached down and affectionately brushed his fingertips across Darrell's forehead.

"Did she eat anything for you?" Halbarad asked, the tender action not lost on him.

Estel sighed. "She is not as dehydrated as she was. But with the fever I need her to drink even more. She is undernourished, but what could one expect after being buried alive for the length she was? I tried to coax her to eat some of the stew for me. She ate a few spoonfuls, but she pushed the bowl away looking as if she was going to be sick. She clamped her mouth shut after that, and I could not bring myself to force her to eat the food. She is already frightened enough."

"Give her time. Her stomach will have shrunk from the lack of food. It will take a while for her to get back to her usual self," Halbarad said as he poked the burning logs with a stick. The fire crackled and spat merrily, the sound of it alone bringing warmth to many of the men sitting or standing around the small glade, either resting or caring for their weapons. Neither mentioned out loud what Darrell's 'usual' state might be.

With a sigh, Halbarad looked at Estel. "What are you going to do with her?"

The simple question took Estel by surprise. In truth, he hadn't even thought about what to do with Darrell. It had not even occurred to him that he was going to have to try and find the child a new home. Where would she go? Who would take her in?

Estel shook his head before looking back at the older ranger. "I have given no thought to that matter yet.. What shall I do? I cannot care for a child, not one as young as Darrell, nor can she accompany us."

Halbarad rubbed his hands together absently. "It is true, what you say. We are men, warriors. Most of us do not have experience with children. Perhaps one of the neighbouring villages will take her, or maybe she will have family she can tell us about. The main thing is that she needs a home."

"Nay, she does not have any living relatives. Her uncle was the last family member she knew about. Her parents are dead. She said they went away and never came back." Estel shook his head with a sigh, gazing into the fire, lost in thought.

His eyes eyes glanced down at the sleeping child beside him. Without knowing why, he reached out and gently stroked Darrell's shoulder-length hair. He smiled to himself as he brushed her hair away from her face. It was dark, similar to his.

Unexpectedly, Darrell awoke and began coughing – harsh, rattling coughs that wracked her small body as she curled on her side in the hope they would stop. But they refused to let up. Again and again she coughed, desperately trying to drag much needed air into her lungs.

A cold chill swept over Estel as Darrell started to struggle for breath. He picked her up, raising her to a sitting position and gently setting her down on her knees. One arm supported her while his other hand rubbed the child's back, gently but urgently willing air into the tortured lungs as her body shook with the force of coughing as she gasped for breath in between coughs, desperately trying to get air into her oxygen-deprived lungs.

Halbarad looked on worriedly as the young girl clutched at her chest as though in pain. Obviously, the harsh coughing was hurting her.

"Deep breaths, Darrell… slow your breathing… take it easy." It was simple for Estel to say, but he knew that it was nearly impossible for the child to follow. The only thing he could do was support Darrell and rub her back in soothing circles until the convulsive cough eased up on its own.

Darrell coughed weakly and choked for a while, making no move to rise or speak. She seemed utterly exhausted, which didn't surprise Estel. He knew the child was in pain from the way she was hunched over, trying to curl back in on herself.

"Halbarad," Estel called softly as he held Darrell against him. "Can you pass me my water skin, please?"

Halbarad nodded and got up, returning a few moments later with the water skin. He passed it to Estel, who was still kneeling next to Darrell, gently rubbing her ribs to try and steady her breathing.

"Shhh, little one, take it easy," Estel murmured again as he raised Darrell's chin and pressed the water skin to her lips. "Just sip it slowly—that's it."

Darrell drank a small amount of water before she turned her head away. Estel frowned at the young girl's still-laboured breathing. "Darrell...Darrell, can you hear me?" he asked, concerned as he turned her in his arms so he could see her face.

Darrell said nothing, but nodded her head and just closed her eyes, wanting to sleep once again. Her throat felt as though it was on fire, and her head and chest ached from the lack of oxygen.

Estel lowered Darrell onto the pile of blankets, checked her pulse, and listened to her breathing. He frowned at what he heard: the child's airways were badly congested. The ranger continued to rub her ribs until her breathing had calmed down to a normal level. He smiled sadly as he watched Darrell's eyes close when she finally drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

"How does she fare?" Halbarad whispered quietly as he crouched down next to Estel, careful not to disturb the sleeping child.

Estel ran his fingers through his hair. "She is ill. I fear the illness has gone to her chest. There is fluid in her lungs." He brushed his hand lightly over Darrell's forehead and frowned at the heat radiating off the young girl. "Her fever has also risen. I was hoping it wouldn't," he murmured as he retrieved a cloth. He wet it with the cool liquid from his water skin before placing it on Darrell's forehead.

As he did so, Estel couldn't help but notice how small and innocent the girl looked. She seemed to remind him of himself when he was a young boy, taken as a child to Lord Elrond in Rivendell when his parents were killed by Orcs. He'd been alone in the world, lost and frightened, wanting only a soft hand and a kind heart to soothe him.

"By my guess, I'd say the child has had that cough going on a while now. Something that bad doesn't come on immediately like that." The older ranger glanced at Estel.

"Aye, there is truth in your words, Halbarad." Estel shook his head. "We shall just have to watch her and hope that it does not develop any further." Having said this, the ranger settled himself down beside the child, watching her as the night passed.

For a while, Darrell slept peacefully, but soon she began to shiver and moan quietly as the fever took hold of her. Estel replaced the now-warm cloth with a fresh, cool one and spoke soothingly, hoping to calm the child and coax her back into sleep.

"Hush, little one…go back to sleep. Nothing shall harm you. Shhh..." Estel murmured softly as he held Darrell's hand in his, his thumb stroking her knuckles. But the young girl continued to twist and turn, crying out in feverish nightmares.

"Sîdh, Darrell, naun hí; ú-vaur gosto," Estel spoke softly, slipping back into the Grey Tongue as he wiped the child's forehead once more. "Peace, Darrell, I am here; there is no need to fear."

The Sindarin words seemed to help calm her, for Darrell ceased to twist and turn and her breathing became deep and even once more. With relief, Estel sat back and ran his fingers through his hair. He gently settled the blankets but paused as he caught sight of the growing stain on the side of the child's leg where the bandage was. A quick look confirmed his fears: the child's leg was bleeding again.

Carefully removing the red-stained bandage, Estel used the corner of the cloth to wipe away the blood. He bit his lip as he gazed down at the wound. It was jagged and the skin was badly torn around the edges. One look at it and he immediately knew that it would need stitching to heal properly. He had forgotten about it. But now it required attention.

With a heavy heart, Estel prepared a needle and thread. He was loathe to put the child through more pain, but he had no other choice. Nor did he have anything with him that would numb the area, which made everything worse. He would just have to rely on his skill and pray that the small girl remained asleep for the duration of the operation.

He carefully bathed the wound using what little water he had left before steeling himself for what he was about to do. But before he could begin, the sound of his name being called caused him to look up, startled. Halbarad was on his feet, calling urgently to him, another ranger at his side while the two of them engaged in a heated conversation as they strode quickly back across the camp to where Estel crouched beside the child.

"Strider, the scouts report orc movements not five furlongs from our location." he called out, his voice sounding slightly panicked. Men were standing up, securing their weapons and preparing themselves as the word spread around.

Estel closed his eyes and put down the needle. "What is the estimated number?" he asked as he stood up, his eyes bright and alert. He shot the shivering child at his feet a worried glance. The last thing they needed now was a fight, especially with this ill little girl on hand. He grabbed a bandage lying close to his knee and quickly and efficiently wrapped it around the child's leg. It would have to do for the moment.

"Tyrion estimates about two or three dozen in number. They are moving at a fast pace, heading northeast. There is a chance that they will pass by our camp...but we could remain unnoticed...Shall I tell the men to prepare to move out?" Halbarad spoke quickly, his anxiety showing.

"No, warn the men to be on alert, but do not make any hasty decisions until the situation is clearer," Estel ordered sternly. Halbarad nodded and left to convey the order. Another ranger stepped over and asked if plans to break camp should be considered.

Estel shook his head. "No. Until we are assured that they are real and not just another fake trail to lead us into a trap, I want all the men to remain on alert and to keep their ears and eyes open. Put out the fire and use the cover of darkness to hide ourselves. I will take the child with me."

"And if there should be an attack mounted upon us, what is the plan?"

"Hopefully it will not come to that." Estel's voice was grim and he crouched down and scooped up the child. Darrell awaoke with a cry and clung onto the man. "W'what's ha-happening?" she cried with fear. Estel hushed her absently. "Quiet child!" He bent and grabbed his pack and sword from where is rested against the tree. "I need you to be very quiet for me."

Darrell clung tightly to Estel as he moved swiftly through the trees until he crouched down behind a large rocked concealed from view by the bushes and trees surrounding them. There he set her gently down on the ground beside him. Darrell's eyes were filled with fear and no sound came from her mouth as she sat rigidly without moving.

"Do you remember the bad things that came the other night?" Estel asked softly. Darrell nodded. "Are they here?"

"No they are not here, but there are some of them not far from where we are now so I need you to be very quiet and stay here for me, alright?" He made to rise, but Darrell grabbed hold of his jacket. "Wait, where are you going?! Please don't leave me!"

Estel crouched back down. "Hush little one," he murmured, resting one hand on her shoulder. " I will not be gone for very long I promise. I just want to make sure that we are safe here. I need you to promise to wait for me and hide behind the bushes if you hear anyone coming."

"But who will come back for me?" Darrell's voice was close to tears at the thought of being left alone again in the dark.

Estel smiled. "Either myself or one of my rangers will come for you. They will call out your name. I promise I will not leave you here. I will come back." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Keep it safe," he whispered.

Darrell looked down at her palm and the object lying in it. It was a silver ring with a bright green jewel in the middle of it. The ring itself was designed like two snakes wearing crowns with the jewel between them. "What is it?"

"My promise to you that I will come back," the soft reply came from above. "Now stay hidden. Stay safe."

When the girl looked up again, Estel was gone. A shiver rolled through her as the wind rustled the leaves around her and she cowered back further against the face of the rock behind her as the overwhelming fear of being lost and alone crushed into her with full force and she started to cry silently to herself hugging her knees to her chest.

A shout somewhere off in the distance and the sound of metal clashing against metal caused the child to jump violently. She curled back even further against the rock. She covered her ears in an attempt to block out the sounds of the fighting but it was to no avail. She could still hear them. She did not need to see what was happening to know. Memories from that awful night when her village was destroyed plagued her mind. The sounds of the fighting, the screams of the dying, the faces of the evil beings as they broke down the door to the house of her uncle and their ugly cruel laugh as they advanced on them.

Darrell could hardly breathe. She clenched her fists, tightly squeezing the ring as she rubbed her eyes in an effort to block the memories. But she couldn't stand it any more. Suddenly she needed to run. She needed to get away. Forgetting her promise to Estel to remain where she was, Darrell stumbled to her feet, wincing as the injury to her leg was pulled, causing pain to flare through the small limb and fled into the darkness.