Avi marveled at the incredible size of the trees they passed. They were at least half over the height of any tree he had seen in the wood around Sundar. In the high reaches, squirrels and birds played vigorously. Chirps and scuttling from the canopy above mixed with the sound of activity from the forest below. Warm breeze carrying the sweet smell of berries drifted by. Multiple times Avi had to call Bhoora back from a delicious scent pulling him from their path.
“This is such a lovely forest,” Avi said. Carina and Zariah nodded and took a long glance around. The morning sun was gushing down through the trees. The smell of summer was in the air. A blanket of green embraced the landscape in all directions.
“Do you notice how fresh the air feels to your lungs?” Carina asked. Avi agreed.
“Much better than Endale,” Zariah said.
“That’s because these conifers have an anti-inflammatory compound called alpha-pinene.”
“What’s that?” Avi asked, smiling at his sister’s endless fascination with all things natural.
"It's a bicyclic monoterpene structural isomer. There are four that occur naturally. In the Old World, there were only two.” Carina said.
“No,” Avi said. “What does it do?” Zariah giggled at their sibling banter.
“Oh, it helps you breathe better,” she said.
“See, you can speak normal,” Avi said with a laugh. They chuckled as they continued down the path.
“Are you limping?” Zariah asked. She let her voice fall soft as not to let Carina hear. Avi appreciated the sensitivity.
“It's nothing; it's just a scratch,” Avi said.
“Want me to take a look at it?”
“If you want.” Avi pulled up his pant leg to reveal the bright stripe of red that Bhoora’s claws had rendered deeply into his skin. Carina didn’t notice that they had fallen behind. Avi didn’t call after his sister. A moment alone with Zariah was not an unwelcome change.
“Ok, just a minute,” Zariah said. She scanned the nearby forest floor. After a minute of searching, she said, “I don't see what we need here.”
“What are we looking for?”
“It’s a seven leaf fern,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s good for cuts.”
“How do you know?”
“I've had a few cuts,” she paused. “Here we go.” She plucked a few leaves, grabbed two rocks from the ground, and began crushing the leaves between them. She leaned down and rubbed the rock against the cut.
“It feels a little better, I think.”
“That’s about as good as we can do out here. When we get to the Orchards, we could probably do better,” Zariah said, still kneeling. Avi awed at her apothecary skills. He soon got too lost in her umber eyes to ask what she meant by Orchards.
“Thanks.” was all he could manage. She unrolled his pant leg and stood. They walked, he sans the limp.
After an hour, they felt the ground angle upward as they ascended into the outer edges of the hills of Anglin. The day progressed into the warm afternoon hours as the forest gave up its density to treeless meadows. At about the fifth hour, they came across a melodious brook that cut through a pasture between two sparsely wooded hills. Craggy heights climbed upward on either side of the valley like a standing ovation for the beauty of the creation below. Avi paused for a brief few moments to take in the scenery. Rachit didn't slow.
About a hundred paces down the valley, Avi spotted a large herd of mountainous creatures near the creek. “Look, Mammoths,” he said.
“Wow!” Zariah responded. “We don’t have those in—” she corrected. “Where I’m from.” Avi noticed her self-edit, but he let it go for now.
“They rarely roam this low in the hill country. They normally migrate farther north this time of year,” Carina informed.
"See that, Boy,” Avi said to Bhoora. “Those woolies are huge.” He patted the bear on the side of his neck as they stood and watched the enormous elephantine creatures. The pots tied to Bhoora stopped clanging as he stood still to take in the scene. “They kind of make you look small,” Avi added. Bhoora woofed quietly to himself.
“Look at the musculature of that bull’s prehensile proboscis,” Carina said. Avi shot her a glance and a grin. She amended her statement. “I mean, his trunk.”
A few heads popped up among the herd and pivoted in their direction. Rachit continued up and over the next hill as Avi, Zariah, and Carina watched the spread of pachyderms milling around in the meadow. When a young matriarch spotted the travelers, she began to make her way toward them. A large bull and a young calf followed in her wake.
Avi stood still while the family of massive, wooly mammoths came close. The bull was like a walking mountain, shaking the ground with every step. His head alone dwarfed the otherwise immense Bhoora. The colossal male was the first to make contact. He reached out his trunk, as thick as a tree's, and took such a mighty sniff that Avi's hair danced toward the gust. After inspecting them all, he let out a rumble mellow and rich. The meaning of the rumble was clear to the female as she stepped forward. Avi reached up to the male's extended trunk and petted it gently.
Now that the bull mammoth had given permission, the calf came charging through the legs of his parents with his trunk flopping and his ears waving. He sprang and skipped with joy for his new friends. Bhoora stepped back; the tethered pots clanged. He recoiled from the enormous calf, not nearly the size of the adults but nearly equal to his own hefty bulk. Avi and Carina laughed at the uncontainable excitement that the calf exuded.
The baby mammoth stepped in front and pressed the side of his head against Avi’s chest. He could feel the weight of the playful creature. The calf wrapped his prickly trunk around Avi in a playful caress. Their new friend wanted to play.
The male let out a purr that was like bottled thunder. The calf circled Avi and offered its sides for a scratch. As Avi gave the baby pachyderm his attention, Carina stroked the trunk of the matriarch who had taken a liking to her. Zariah reached for the same. Bhoora stood back, not sure what to make of the prodigious family.
After allowing the meet and greet to go on for a few minutes, the large bull let out a subtle grunt. Avi glanced at the father mammoth, not sure what the sound meant. The calf knew the call and obeyed immediately, assembling at his father's legs. The female apparently wasn't as eager to comply, owing to the scratch her snout was receiving from Zariah and Carina. The male, along with the calf, turned toward the grazing pasture. After another few strokes, the mother left Carina's side, lumbered around, and followed her family back toward the meadow.
“Wow!” Carina said. “That was awesome.”
“Yeah, that calf was hilarious,” Avi agreed. Though he was sad that Rachit didn’t get to share the experience.
“Oh, someone's coming,” Zariah said. Avi spun around. With a rustle of leaves, Zariah quickened away. In another second, she hid among the trees.
“You know,” an unfamiliar voice said. “In the old world, wooly mammoths were extinct for the latter part of human history.”
Avi and Carina turned to see who had spoken. Avi saw a man standing among the trees.
“Who are you?” Carina asked. Avi peered around, trying to catch sight of Zariah, but she had disappeared. Avi turned his attention to the stranger.