In the period of deep snow, the entire camp had gone hungry. Neither hunting nor gathering had been possible. When the snow melted, the hunters, Thorn among them, had gone out with the cries of hungry babies echoing in their ears.
Thorn had trailed the deer herd for three days, grabbing seeds and berries to eat as he went. The herd led him into a valley entirely strange to him. He needed to make his kill soon, for he was burning with fever. In the morning, he took a distant shot, and the arrow hit the doe in her belly, but not deep enough. The herd scattered, and he pursued the doe. It was afternoon before he found her, panting and unable to rise.
He slit her throat with his knife. Then he gutted her, ate her liver, and staggered off carrying her in the direction he thought would lead him home. Sick and burdened, he made poor time. Towards evening, well before he expected to get home, he found people. They were strangers, though. They were unlike his people or anyone else he had ever met.
They took the doe from his back and led him to their camp. By this time, the fever had him. He wasn’t sure how much he saw was real. Certainly, the walk through spear-grass could not have lasted at all as long as it seemed to. He had never seen more than a few tufts together. Here, they were standing together, and they went on and on. There didn’t seem to be any plants but those. An old man led him into a hut, and he collapsed on the bed of grass stems.
For a time he couldn’t measure, he lay there. The old man gave him something bitter to drink, and he dropped back to sleep. A young woman gave him some soup, and he dropped back to sleep. This went on and on. They talked to him, but their words were strange.
When the fever left him, but left him weak, he started to understand them. It wasn’t the language of his people, but it was only a little strange. They pronounced the words differently, but only a few were new. They called the spear-grass, grain. The young woman, Blossom, boiled the tips to make gruel which was their main food. It didn’t taste as good as meat, but he grew healthier eating it.
When he was well enough, the old man, Guardian, took him to a sweat lodge. They went naked -- and, since the day was cold, quickly. But he did see that the whole area around the camp was covered with the spear-grass or grain. There were urns of water in the sweat lodge. Some water they threw on the hot rocks; some water Thorn threw on himself. When they returned, Thorn was shivering violently. He ran past Guardian to the hut. There, it was hot. Blossom was burning his old bed and had cleaned up his clothes.
Later, Guardian led him to the closest of the grain plants. All the grain from those plants had been gathered, or -- as Guardian said -- harvested. They cut enough of those stems for another bed. Blossom and Guardian had each had a bed until he came along, but they only had two furs for covering. Now, they shared one while he had the other. Now, he took their old bed, and Guardian and Blossom shared the fresh one.
He was well enough to help, now. The people in the camp, or -- as they called it -- village depended on the grain. They didn’t move camp, but stayed by the plants all year. They did little hunting and gathered almost nothing but the grain. Their problem was that birds and animals gathered the grain as well. So they had stations among the grain fields where a man or, more usually, boy waited with rocks. When a flock of birds or a deer came, he would shout, wave his hands, and throw the rocks. Usually, it frightened the animals away. That was something Thorn could do. After the first time, he took his bow and two arrows with him. When he was stationed near where the grain gave way to the forest, he waited while a herd of deer started to eat. Instead of shouting at them, he took aim at a fawn. His arrow hit, and they all ran away.
“Meat! Meat!” he shouted. When some men came running through the grain plants to see him, he figured that they would frighten any bird more than a solitary person could. He took off after the fawn. When he found it dying, he slit its throat and brought it back to where the others were waiting.
“Here is one who won’t eat any more grain plants,” he said. “Help me.” When he had taken out the entrails, he told some boys to spread them through the forest along the edge of where the grain was growing. “It will attract animals, but they don’t eat grass. They, and this, will keep deer away.”
He took the fawn to Blossom, and told her to divide the meat according to her people’s rules. He would be certain to get it wrong. “The skin, though, is for you if your people’s rules allow that.” Then he went back to take up his station. He needn’t fear deer, but crows would continue to be a problem.
The people in the village started treating him with more respect. He might be doing a boy’s job in scaring birds, but the village didn’t eat much meat, and these people regarded hunting as a daunting task for several men working together. That he had slain a fawn by himself without leaving the area impressed them greatly. Thorn wondered how they thought he had come by the doe he had brought with him. A sick man, however, had been carrying the doe; there was no reason for them to be impressed by a sick man. He considered suggesting to Guardian that he go on another hunt. Others could chase birds.
Guardian, however, had another task for him. He led him to a special hut close to the one Guardian and Blossom lived in. This one was smaller, built on a raised platform, and without a door. “The hunger time is coming,” Guardian said. Thorn was puzzled. Snow was off the ground. There were few nuts or berries left, but there were many animals. Since these men hunted little, they had game close to where they lived.