Adulthood is achieved at the age of fifteen. At that point, any adult can have sex and have children, married or not (Slaves excepted). Contraceptive herbs are freely available. There is a lot of local variation, though. In the villages, children are a haphazard occurrence, and people rarely marry at all. In and around the Karningholds, matters are rather more orderly, and people tend to marry or form other regular relationships before having children. There are economic considerations, too, so amongst craftsfolk and those setting up businesses, marriage will be considered only when they can afford to raise the children (since men and women both work, supporting a wife isn’t a consideration). There is a certain amount of experimentation, sometimes even before the proper age, and some of it is same-gender (which isn’t an issue).
In a Karninghold, there may be many children of the marriage. Even in the basic two couple arrangement of the inner Karnings, there will be twelve Companions as well, hence eight women, all of whom are free to have children if they choose. In a border Karning with the maximum six couples, there will be twenty four women able to have children.
All the children officially have equal status, whether born to one of the wives or one of the Companions. The children of the wives are known colloquially as first sons or daughters, and officially credited to the lead husband (he is their legal father). The Companions’ children are called second sons and daughters, and are credited to the second husband. All the children take the family name of their fathers (all the husbands will have the same family name). However, they may be sired by any of the husbands or Companions.
Growing up in this kind of family is very different from the more usual couple-plus-children or extended family arrangement which occurs amongst villagers and middle class society. There may well be fifty or sixty children, spread over several decades, and inevitably there isn’t the same closeness. Girls tend to form small close-knit groupings with sisters of similar age, but may barely know sisters only a few years older or younger. Boys, on the other hand, form looser and larger groupings, turning into roving bands of pretend Skirmishers, holding their own battles with wooden swords.
Up to the age of ten, there is no formal education, although children are free to learn from the adults, and may pick up creative or practical skills by helping out with chores or by spending time with a friendly adult.
At ten, all Karningholder children go to the Ring for six months of every year (autumn through to spring). This period includes the winter quiet, when they live in the appropriate family house and spend time in the temple and pavilion with their father. They receive formal education from the scholars in the usual subjects, reading, writing, numbers, history and a bit of science. The boys will begin basic Skirmisher training, and the girls will be taught to manage a Karning. A large part of their education is with the Slaves, learning about the Word of the Gods, and the implementation of the laws and guidance the Nine have provided.
At the age of fifteen, the children of Karningholders take a series of tests, written, oral and practical, and are interviewed by the Voices a number of times. If they are deemed worthy, they become Highers (ruling elite). Otherwise, they have to find some other work to do. Some don’t want to be Highers and don’t take the tests. Only the children of Karningholders can become Highers, although other children may be educated at the Ring too.
Once accepted as Highers, they go initially to their fathers again. The girls will stay there until they marry (become Karningholders in their turn), although they may visit older sisters or cousins. The boys become skirmish Commanders, and have a Hundred of their own. They can stay with their father, or may go to an older brother or cousin or uncle to help out there, until they marry and become Karningholders themselves.
Deciding when to marry is a difficult decision. For a boy, being the lead or second husband is very desirable, since they make the decisions, get the choice of wives and are credited with the children. However, it tends to be the best Skirmishers who achieve that. Some will wait and hope to marry and get their own Karning at twenty or so. The less talented can find a niche by becoming a junior husband in an established marriage, where they might get to the border (and into real battles) more quickly.
The girls have a little more flexibility, but there is still the question of whether to hope to found a new marriage, or join an established one. For girls, though, there is an additional option – being inactive (sexually), and simply helping the more senior wives with the management of the Karning or the children. This is a very common option for those aged fifteen to twenty.