Big Dode had been unable to put it off any longer. Using his position as son of a village elder he had managed to have his ordeal deferred for year after year. Now every other person his age had undergone their trials and had either perished or returned to the village as adults and full members of village society. Big Dode was now an anomaly, a subject of whispers, and although they did not say so, an embarrassment to his family. So when the shamans declared the time for the ordeal had arrived he presented himself to them. He underwent the ritual cleansing with the other, much younger, postulants then returned to his family. In the morning of the longest day of the year he set out from the village, alone and in the direction indicated by the shamans. With him he had his weapons, food for five days, and suspended round his neck the bedraggled ancient artifact gifted to him for good luck by his father - an idol in the shape of a human baby made of indestructible ancient material.
Big Dode walked all day in the prescribed direction and at night circled back to a place he knew. It had a secure and well-hidden cave, where he had been for several weeks depositing dried meat taken from the winter supply at home, and had nearby an inexhaustible water supply where water trickled from a large perfectly circular opening in a cliff face to soak away into the gritty sand. He planned to sit out the ten days of the trial there. He smiled to himself as he walked, congratulating himself for his cleverness. Not for him ten days in the badlands with five days food and water, having to forage or fight for any more, encountering who knew what strange creatures. On the night of the tenth day he would return to the village staggering dramatically, recount the events of his ordeal to the shamans, and claim his rightful place as a member of society and no doubt one day be an elder himself.
The first couple of days passed easily, with Big Dode inventing, embroidering, and rejecting as insufficiently impressive one version of his story after another. By the third it was becoming boring. On that night, however, Big Dode was awakened by faint shouts and cries, and crawling cautiously to the mouth of the cave saw flames in the direction of the village. Next morning he was concerned enough to make his way slowly and as stealthily as he could back towards the village. Peering over the rim of a gully he saw that the village was gone, the huts burnt so that only a few timbers still stood. Abandoning caution he headed straight for the village and was appalled to find not a person alive. Several bodies lay unburied, most with broken bones from some sort of club; Big Dode recognised every one of them. Others, unrecognisable, were in burnt-out huts. A large number of footprints approached the village from the west on a wide front to lap around, and a larger number left heading east. Sitting stunned in the ruins Big Dode surmised that the surviving villagers had been taken captive. Gradually Dode began to consider what to do next, and the only plan that came to mind was follow the clear trail left by the raiders and . . . what? He had no idea, but no alternative came to mind, so with numbed mind and leaden feet he set off in pursuit.
Shortly before nightfall he began to search for a safe place to shelter. Looking about an area marked with rocky outcrops and clumps of bushes, he became aware of quiet scurrying sounds. Standing perfectly still he carefully scanned the area and saw movement. As quietly as he could he sheltered behind a rock and peeped out, to see three giant rats, easily the size of dogs, clearly searching for him. They would stop, rear up and sniff the air, then scamper towards him. Quietly he crouched down, attached the hook to the string of his crossbow and straightened, then slotted a bolt into the groove.