Showing somewhat more nervousness than their elders had, Red made the precarious crossing, and was then followed by Pinecone. The two youths were clearly relieved, though seemingly very proud of their bravery, once they were safely on the far bank with the others.
Firecat's bright gold eyes sparkled with challenge as she pointed out over the icy river surface. "See that broad crack?" she asked. "The one Knifemaker leaped? I'll bet I can walk its whole length without breaking through!"
"If you can, I can!" Knifemaker retorted, grinning back ferociously. "So let's each take one side and see who reaches the other end first."
"Agreed," Firecat said with a solemn nod that belied the playfulness of her mood.
The two she-elves took their positions at one end of the wide crack in the ice, and Red stood ready to call out the start of their daring race. He sounded a single high-pitched yip! and the two females took off, though not at a run. They picked their way carefully along the ice's edge, staying as close to the break and moving as quickly as they dared while also attempting not to fall through into the freezing cold river beneath.
"Ha!" Firecat bragged as she spun around after the far point of the crack to grin triumphantly at Knifemaker, who was a mere pace or two behind. "I told you that you're getting old, didn't I?"
Laughter from the boys on the far river bank made Knifemaker turn that direction to say, "Oh, do any of you think you could do better? I'd like to see it!"
"Yes," Firecat laughed, calling out to them as well as the two females picked their way back to the others. "Any other challengers?"
Barkmoss leaped to his feet, and for a half an instant Knifemaker thought he was rising to meet his half-sister's challenge — then she saw the look of horror on his face and his pointing hand. Whirling around to see what he saw, her eyes widened.
"Hello!" The chieftess's young cub, no more than six turns old, had run out onto the river and was crossing toward them. "I wanna play, too!"
**Dawn! No, it's too dangerous!** came Firecat's send, but too late. Little Dawn's wolf-friend, a brown yearling he-wolf, scrambled out onto the river behind her. Even a yearling wolf's weight, combined with the slight cub's, was greater than any of the reckless elves who had been daring the ice, and they ran heedlessly across a weak patch that the other elves had avoided. Together, the two broke through the surface with a sudden tremendous crack and splash before anyone could react.
Knifemaker felt as though her stomach had been hit with the same icy water that closed around the cubs. Barkmoss flashed past her in a blur, and carefully eased himself on his belly to the very edge of the shattered ice. The other four were close behind in joining him on the river, but no one dared get too close for fear of dropping more of them into the chill water.
**Help!** Knifemaker sent out wildly in the direction of the Holt as hard as she could. **Help us! Dawn has fallen in the river!**
Dawn was clinging to her wolf and crying in fear, and her wolf in turn held onto a mouthful of the girl-cub's soaked winter coat in his teeth. The yearling wolf struggled against the cold, his head and Dawn's bobbing once or twice beneath the water's surface, and paddled close enough that Barkmoss was just able to snatch the girl. He hauled her up onto the ice, then tugged her back towards the bank. Firecat moved forward to help as soon as it was reasonably safe, and the others reached for Dawn's wolf-friend to try to pull him out as well.
Just getting a handful of sodden wolf-fur was hard enough, and pulling the water-weighted wolf up and out seemed impossible. Finally, after several minutes of effort, they got first one, then a second forepaw up onto the ice's edge. 'We've got him!' Knifemaker thought in relief, not caring that her fingers were starting to go numb.
Then, to Knifemaker's disbelief, the ice under the wolf's paws broke away as well, and he went under again.
"Heave!" she panted, giving what she wished would have been a mighty pull, if only she hadn't been so tired. Next to her, neither Pinecone nor Red seemed to be feeling much stronger.
Together, they pulled the wolf nearly to the surface again before the water snatched him from their cold-weakened grasps and wrenched him away under the sheet of ice. The three sat panting on the ice for a moment or two, sharing a three-way look of guilty failure. Then they cautiously made their way to the rivershore to help, at least, with poor Dawn.
**Move,** the firm send left no room for disagreement, as help from the Holt finally arrived. Feverease dropped to her knees next to where Firecat sat and clutched the cold little girl-cub, looking stunned, and the others quickly moved back to make room. Knifemaker could see then that the whimpering little girl's lips had turned a frightening dreamberry-purple. Without hesitation, the healer immediately stripped Dawn naked of her soaked clothing, then drew her up against her own bare skin underneath her clothing and hugged her close. Even Firecat scooted backwards to give the healer space as she focused her mind on her mate's daughter, no doubt checking for injury.
'What have we done?' Knifemaker thought guiltily as Feverease worked. 'Dawn must have seen us on the river, and thought it was safe... It wasn't even safe for us! What were we thinking?'
Finally, Feverease emerged from her den. She folded her arms across her chest and regarded the five guilt-stricken elves harshly. "Wolfsister will deal with you on her return," she said coldly, "but I will have my say now." Looking at each of the elves before her, she addressed them individually in turn.
"Barkmoss! Have you not enough of your own foolish ideas that you must follow your sister into trouble, as well?"
"I'm sorry, healer!" the young elf replied sincerely. "You're right. I'll do better from now on, I promise."
"Good," Feverease said shortly. She reached out with a hand to cup under young Red's chin, suddenly a bit softer in her demeanor, though still angry. "And you, Red. You have seen barely two eights of turns. You are almost still a cub yourself! Are you so eager to die this young?"
Eyes wide, Red jerked his head away, then shook his head sheepishly with his gaze toward the ground.
"You too, Pinecone," the healer went on. "You are scarcely older yourself. We can't afford to lose you, either — we can't afford to lose any of you! If we are to survive, our tribe must grow in number, not shrink and shrivel."
"We didn't think anything would happen," Pinecone mumbled apologetically, digging one foot into the shallow crust of snow on the ground.
"And such recklessness from you, Knifemaker, I did not expect," Feverease chided, her eyes flashing at the artisan who bowed her head guiltily. "We lost your daughter, Quillfeather, only this last summer and you risk your own life this way? How irresponsible!"
Knifemaker flinched at that last. The pain of losing her girl-cub, even though grown, was still fresh enough that Feverease's statement had the intended impact.
"As for you, Firecat," Feverease went on, turning to the young huntress. "I have dealt with your three young friends, but I hear that this 'game' was your idea — and it is not the first you've had like it. Your reckless ideas have put our youth, including you, at risk for seasons. Now, a young cub has actually been hurt, and even after her body recovers she will still be left with the heartbreak of a lost wolf-friend. A newly-bonded one at that!"
Knifemaker glanced over at the younger elf. Although Firecat was able to meet the healer's gaze, her golden eyes seemed larger, more solemn and liquid than usual, and her lower lip gave the faintest guilty tremble. Her whole body was held more stiffly than usual as well, and she carried a strong scent of worry.
**Will... little Dawn be all right?** Firecat sent hesitantly, seeming too shaken to use her voice effectively.
Feverease's eyes were still full of anger as she replied, "Yes. She is safe in warm furs in my den, with two of the wolves lending her their body heat and comfort. She might just as easily be dead now, though, if the river had carried her away under the ice! Consider that the next time you are looking for something 'fun' to do."