In Fort Miln women could be only three things: a herb gatherer, a wife, or a Mother.
Herb gatherers ruled the sick houses, soothing pains and aches with potion and solutions. In the hamlets, a herb gatherer might gain enough power to unofficially rule, but in the big cities their power was more narrow. Inside their house, not even the Duke could steal control, but leave their doorstep and they were just another citizen.
Being a wife wasn’t really a choice, it was an expectation. But some women chose well, not just in their husbands wallet, but in his will. He may be the store owner or the guildleader, but she would be the one making decisions. It required a skill for devious actions.
The last choice was one coveted by all. To be a Mother. Mothers were the only ones aside from royal blood allowed into politics. It was to a council of Mothers that the Duke turned for advice and wisdom. It has been said that Fort Miln was run by the strength of its Mothers.
If a women was not a Mother, than she had no worth. A women’s job, according to Fort Miln, was to carry children so that humans could survive another generation. A women’s job was softness, and warmth, and care.
A warders job was harsh and cold, with long hours of study and a hand that had to be steady. It was skill with no room for error and tradition hundreds of years long.
For many, being a warder meant safety. And if you could pay a high enough apprentice fee for the right master, it might even pay out with wealth.
The door to her study slammed opened to reveal a large huffing man, red in the face. “What’s this I hear about you changing the wards again?”
All it took was being able to follow instructions.
To have the memory to follow each ward exactly.
“I was getting paid to protect,” Ariadne said, unbothered by the shouting. Before her on the table was a grimoire of wards, a straight stick, and a slate with chalk. “Besides, I really wasn’t changing the wards so much as making them more efficient.”
That experimentation was forbidden was an unwritten rule.
“And how did you know them to be more efficient?” He stepped inside the room, hoping his size could succeed in intimidating where his yelling had not.
There were some few who could simply see a wardnet. Who could read wards like one might read the weather. They had no need for straight sticks and were exceedingly rare.
The last such that Fort Miln had seen was a couple. Mal and Dom. So talented were they, so lost in their work, that they allowed their children to die when disease swept through the town. They disappeared into the night, never heard from again.
Ariadne stood, slamming her chair back and gaining a bit of color herself. She stared her teacher down.
But Ariadne possessed no such talent. Her skill was gained by long hours studying. By learning the formulas and practice. By hand made models left out in the night with nothing but a slightly modified ward for protection.
He turned away, shamed. She had spent countless hours on the wall, notes in hand while he got drunk in the corner of his shop. He might have been a famous warder once, but a single trip as a messenger had broken him.
She didn’t make new wards, but she stretched known wards to their limit and many would say, beyond their limit.
Her teacher paused in the doorway, but refused to look at her, “I have a package for Miles. You’re to stay and help him with anything he needs for the rest of the day.” A lengthy pause, but he does not leave. Finally, he adds, “And I’m not going to hear of any changes again. Else I’ll find a new apprentice.”
No boy would ever accept her as wife, she knew, because no boy was willing to approach her. Everyone knew she who she was, the strange girl on the wall.
Her parents would badger her every time she came to sit a meal with them, disapproval thick.
It took several deep breaths before her own anger faded. She was a better warder than her master and the only reason he had the money to drink his life away. But his habit was the only reason she had an apprenticeship and access to his grimoire.
And it never bothered her, because she was doing what she loved.
They didn’t look at each other as Ariadne walked past. The package was left in the open along her path to the door.
At least, most days.
Ariadne walked into Miles shop with only a little apprehension. He encouraged her in the profession, but he discouraged everything she loved doing with it.
The days her teacher was drunk enough to not notice the world around him.
A strange man turned upon her entrance. His clothes were well taken care of, but of strange style. A warder then. Miles looked around him with a smile, “Ah Ariadne, we were just discussing you.”
The nights when the guards left her well enough alone to study the corelings and her small warded models.
Ariadne tried to smile as Miles walked around his friend, continuing, “This is my dear friend Arthur. He’s kind of a messenger, but he doesn’t report to a guild or free city. Why, back in the day I found him in the middle of the road, dark approaching, demanding that I teach him the ropes.”
A part of her considered leaving. Her skills of a warder were enough to protect herself against the corelings.
But there were other dangers on the road.
“Well, I have a package here for you. And I’m supposed to help you with whatever you need today. Nice to meet you Arthur, I suppose.” She handed over the package and headed towards the back, where Miles would usually let her practice with his grimoire.
Men little better than corelings, preying on the weaker.
Desperate villagers willing to do anything to make it through a night.
A need for coin. Supplies for bartering. Material worth.
“I’ve heard you like to experiment,” Arthur said, “I have an offer for you, if you’re curious.”
It’s not that Ariadne was afraid, or didn’t want to. It was that she was too practical to kill herself.
Ariadne stopped. “An offer?”
She could make herself a life here.
“I have some friends. Warders. I supply them with goods I buy from my profit, and they supply me with newly created wards.” When she turns back to face him, Arthur is watching her.
But she can’t keep herself from dreaming of somewhere else.
“When do we leave?”