The brush tickled on her skin, but Lily stood perfectly still as the man worked. With tiny pots of henna and black ink, he drew spirals and flowers along her trunk and ears.
"There," he said at last. "These signs will protect you from that Enemy wizard. But stay out of the river or my work will be washed away," he warned her sternly.
She gave a little snort and ran the tip of her trunk through his tangled hair. He scratched her in the dry spot under her ears.
"Belzagar!" one of the others shouted. "Stop wasting time on that beast and get yourself armed. It is nearly time to leave."
"I will be back, my Water Lily," the man told her. He said that was her name because she loved to lie in the mud. And because she was the most lovely of oliphaunts, just as the lily was the loveliest flower.
She found a sunny spot and waited for him. It was cold in this place called Gondor, and she longed for the Southlands. Soon, he returned, dressed in a red tunic and a coat of bright brass plates, his unruly hair oiled and braided into obedience. He was by far the handsomest of the men. But she suddenly saw that he had no spirals and flowers of henna. What would protect him from the evil wizard Mithrandir? With a cry of alarm, she rubbed her trunk against his face, trying to smear the paintings onto his skin.
"Steady, Lily," he told her. "Steady, lass. Whatever is the matter?"
Soon, the oliphaunts were guided into a line, and the horns sounded the charge. Later, she remembered little of the battle, except that she wanted to run away from the horses and spears and the other oliphaunts trumpeting with fear and rage. Only Belzagar's voice reassured her in the midst of the madness. "After this is over, we will go for a swim in the river," he told her. "You can roll on your back and wallow in the mud. And then-"
She stumbled as the harness straps slid and tangled around her feet. Somehow, they had worked loose or been cut. With a wild cry, she tried to shake off the burden of riders and armor on her back. She heard screams and cursing as the men were flung away, then she swayed and fell to the ground, trapped in the wreckage of her harness. She struggled to rise to her feet. The horses were galloping toward her, their riders aiming bright spears. Leaving her to her fate, the men of Harad fled. All except one.
"My Water Lily, keep still," a calm voice said by her ear. Belzagar cut the tangled straps from her front legs then crawled along her back and freed her from the rest of the harness. With a mighty heave, she pulled herself to her feet then with her tusks swept away the first rank of the horsemen. She quickly knelt down so the man could climb on her back without the aid of the straps.
"Good lass," Belzagar said. He tried to pull himself up then sank against her side. She smelled the blood even before she saw he was wounded. An arrow had gone between the brass plates and was buried in his shoulder. She knelt lower, as low as she could. "Go back to the river, Lily. There you will be safe," he ordered. "Go!"
When she did not move, he struck her weakly with the flat of his sword, aiming for the tender spot under her chin. She shook her head in surprise, but the blow was so light it barely stung. The second rank of horsemen was almost upon them.
"Go, curse you!" Belzagar cried, and then he dropped against her and lay still, the long braids falling across his face. She nudged him with her trunk, but he did not move. As gently as she could, she wrapped her trunk around his waist and lifted him. War oliphaunts were trained to pick up the enemy and break them like sticks, so she took great care not to harm him. With a warning cry at the horsemen, she turned and headed toward the river. His weight unbalanced her stride, but she stumbled as fast as she could. The horsemen seemed to take her retreat as surrender and did not follow in pursuit.
Men and orcs scrambled out of her path as she ran through their camps. The harsh scent of smoke gave way to the cool fragrance of reeds and rushes, and water glinted between the trees. Her heart rose when she reached the river bank. Soon they would be safe. Still holding Belzagar with her trunk, she walked into the river until it rose to her flanks. Then she stopped. If she tried to swim in deep water, both of them would drown. While she carried him wrapped in her trunk, she could not reach the surface to breathe. Unsure what to do, Lily waded back to the shore and carefully set the man on a soft hummock of grass. With a low rumble of concern, she touched him lightly with her front feet. He gave a startled cry and tried to sit up, clutching his wounded shoulder. "My faithful Lily," he murmured as he sank back on the grass. She knew he needed a healer to take out the arrow, but that care she could not give.
At the sound of another oliphaunt, she raised her sharp tusks and spread her ears to make herself look larger. Trumpeting wildly, old Abrazân broke through the trees with a crash. He still bore his gold-spangled harness, but his keeper and warriors were gone. "The battle is lost! Follow me!" he called to her as he plunged into the river then swam toward the far green shore.
"Wait!" Lily cried, but the ancient oliphaunt did not stop.
Though she longed to follow her herdmate, she could not leave Belzagar to be taken by the enemy. The northerners were as cruel as orcs and burned their captives alive in sacrifice to their sacred tree. With an uneasy rumble, she brushed his face with her trunk. Perhaps if they followed the river, staying near to water and grass, they could slowly make their way back to Harad. She started to pick him up, but he cried out in such pain that she quickly set him back down.
If he could not be moved, they must stay here together. She had not eaten in hours, so she grazed along the river bank, never straying far from where he lay. All manner of sweet and tender plants grew by the water. She gathered a bundle of the youngest shoots and offered them to Belzagar, holding them to the man's mouth. Laughing weakly, he thanked her.
As evening fell, the distant sound of battle faded. Belzagar dozed on the grass while she ate the shrubs at the water's edge. At a sudden clamor, she whirled about and charged in a rage. Two orcs had seized the wounded man and were trying to pull off his coat of brass plates. They snarled and shrieked as, dagger in hand, he struggled to fight them off. Roaring, Lily seized the nearest enemy and dashed it against a tree. As the other fled, she knocked it to the ground with a sweep of her tusks. She stamped on the evil creature until she heard Belzagar telling her to stop.
After that, she stayed close by his side. The orcs had not harmed him aside from a gash on his hand, but the fight had left him weary and he soon fell into a restless sleep. Still wary of danger, Lily dozed on her feet instead of lying down. She was wakened in the night by Belzagar talking wildly about ships and swords and apricots. His words made no sense, and when she touched his face, he seemed not to know her and tried to turn away.
In the morning, she hurriedly drank from the river, not daring to leave the wounded man for more than a moment. His voice grew weaker and weaker until he could only murmur.
At midday, a party of horsemen halted and watched them from a distance. She stared back with her ears fanned wide. Despite this warning, two horsemen rode closer. One was dark-haired like the men of Harad, but the other had strange yellow hair. The two men swung down from their horses and slowly walked toward Lily. Instead of bows and spears, they carried bundles of hay and a bucket.
She trumpeted in warning and, to her surprise, was answered in the language of the south.
"Great One, we mean no harm to you or your friend," the dark-haired northerner called. "Pray let us approach." He even used the proper form of address.
Holding out his bundle of hay, the yellow-haired man came forward. Instead of a soldier's boots, he wore light shoes, and his footfalls made little sound. He had a strange face, even for a northerner, but his manner was gentle and calm. His bright eyes held the depths of the forest—the slow dappled light and the silence. With a courteous bow, he set down the hay and emptied the bucket beside it. Her nose flared at the scent of dried apples.
For a long while, Lily stared at him, and when he did not move, she finally reached for the food. Perhaps these men were not evil. Enemies would not bring apples. When she had finished eating, she reached out her trunk to touch the man's strange hair.
The dark man approached and set down his bundle of hay. He wore a grey cloak, and his hair fell unbound to his shoulders. Gazing into her eyes, he told her again, "Great One, we mean no harm." Though his face looked grim, his voice was kind, and she knew in her heart she could trust him, no matter where he was from. Lily watched while he knelt beside Belzagar and, pushing aside the tangled braids, gently laid a hand on his brow. The wounded man closed his eyes and lay still. He did not even stir as the northerner drew the arrow and bound up the wound.
"We must bear him to the healers," the grim-faced northerner told her. She bowed her head to show her obedience to his will; then she followed as they carried the wounded man to the enemy camp. A crowd of horsemen stared and muttered as they passed. Belzagar, his eyes still closed, was carried into a tent, and she let the yellow-haired man lead her to a great field. Eyeing her with distrust, a herd of horses trotted to the far end.
All day she watched for Belzagar, and though she saw many northerners with long, yellow braids, the man of Harad did not appear. Keeping a wary distance, some horsemen brought sweet hay and carrots and spread a thick pile of straw for her bedding, and she found a small stream where she could splash the blood and dirt from her hide. As the grim-faced northerner had promised, no one tried to harm her.
The next day, Lily still waited. And the day after that. Belzagar would not leave her, but as the days slowly passed, she began to fear he had died from his wounds. The sweet hay tasted like straw in her mouth, and she stood by the edge of the field with her head bowed low.
One afternoon, the air grew heavy as if before a summer storm and dark clouds rose in the east. She felt a strange dread though she knew not why, and then just as quickly, the heaviness was gone. Across the field, the horses whinnied as they leapt and raced in circles. Trumpeting to them, she flapped her ears with joy. She did not know what had happened, but she felt new hope that Belzagar would return.
The days grew longer and warmer. She was eating the new spring flowers when a familiar voice called her name. Startled, she turned and saw Belzagar walking across the field. He was dressed in ill-fitting clothing and his beautiful hair had been shorn, but she knew his well-loved face even from that distance. She called to him in return, running toward him as fast as she could. Gently, she twined her trunk about him for he was no larger than a newborn calf. Throwing his arms around her, he wept in her embrace. "My Water Lily," he murmured again and again.
The grim-faced northerner came across the field to join them. On his dark hair, he wore a silver circle that glinted and flashed in the sun. "The Riders say she watched for you every hour of the day," he told the man of Harad. "I am glad to see the meeting of old friends."
"What is to become of us, lord?" Belzagar asked, untangling himself from her trunk.
"You are both free to go if you swear that you will never again bear arms against Gondor or its allies." With a wry smile, the northerner added, "You may swear on Lily's behalf."
"I owe you my life and will gladly swear this oath," the man of Harad replied. Rumbling happily, Lily ruffled his hair with her trunk. "Yet we are trained for war and know nothing else. Where shall we now find a home?"
"The tools of war may be turned to better uses," the northerner said. "The sword becomes a sickle and the spear serves as a pole to support the fruit tree's heavy branches. When I travelled in Harad, I saw oliphaunts drawing ploughs and hauling logs. Is she suited for such work?"
"Very well suited, lord," Belzagar said. At the troubled look on his face, Lily gave a low growl of concern.
"But you do not wish her to do such work? Or you do not wish to return her to Harad?"
Belzagar was silent, then he replied, "I do not mean to speak ill of my people, but while I lay in their camp, I watched these Riders of Rohan caring for their beasts. They use no whips or spurs and rarely speak a stern word, yet their horses are willing and well-trained. My people could learn much from them."
The northerner nodded slowly. "It is said that several oliphaunts escaped the battle and forded the river. If so, these beasts now wander in Ithilien. With a skillful hand to guide them, there is much that they could do to rebuild that land." He ducked with a laugh as Lily reached out to snatch the shiny circle from his head.
"You are merciful, Elessar King," Belzagar said, as he knelt and pressed his brow to the earth after the manner of Harad. Following his lead, Lily bowed low in gratitude.