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The Market And The Merchandise by Michaela Francis

EXTRACT FOR
The Market And The Merchandise 
(Michaela Francis)


Slaves of the Amethyst 14

Narrator’s Foreword

 

The summer festival in Mathomdale had always been something of a slave market but the market of that particular year was notable for the intense speculation and enormous amounts of money that it generated. What exactly caused this dramatic inflation has always been open to debate. Certainly the sudden availability of a lot of new slaves as a result of the refugee influx fuelled a buying spree but this, in itself, one would not normally expect to raise the prices so highly. In a normal market, one would expect the glut of merchandise to bring prices down but this, significantly, did not occur. Indeed prices rose sharply and, in the case of particular valued stock, reached unprecedented levels.

 It is true that there had been a dearth of young slaves on the market for some years and doubtless the excitement of having so many newcomers now available caused something of a rush in the market. Some have even speculated that many families had a surplus of disposable income with which to buy new slaves, as a result of the previous shortage and were apt to bid extravagantly. Certainly the House of Mathom, by its espousal of the refugee cause, including its own leading example in purchasing several of the newly dispersed slaves itself, increased the value of these slaves. It could even be said that the House of Mathom established a precedent, a fashion trend if you will, for the acquirement of these young people and substantially boosted interest in them. It could also be argued that the long drought of new slaves had created a serious vacuum among European families that not even the influx of newcomers could fully fill. Many families were simply stagnating at best or even falling into decline through the lack of new blood to revitalise them. There seemed almost a desperate rush, among such families, to acquire new slaves and restore their prestige and standing.

It is that sense of renaissance among the families of the Line that perhaps most explains the intense competition to acquire slaves at the Mathomdale Fair that year. It was a renaissance that started at the top. It did not escape anybody’s notice that the House of Mathom seemed in the grip of a renewal after so many years of stagnation. It was common knowledge that Lady Mathom had paid a record sum to acquire the daughter of Lady Mathom’s estranged wife or that she was acquiring new slaves at a rate not seen for many years. If the House of Mathom, even during dark days of conflict and uncertainty, was investing so heavily in its future then other houses would take note and follow its example, for there seemed hope in the future after all. The First House of the Line led by example and generated the excitement that had all families scrabbling toward their own renewal and the bright promise the new generation of slaves represented.

Thus any available slave found themselves at the centre of unprecedented interest and speculation. Even those of not particularly prestigious blood lines or of exceptional quality excited high bidding and families were prepared to offer ridiculous amounts for prime stock. So inflated did these prices become that, in later years, the Slavery Ethics committee was compelled to put brakes on the speculation and enforce more realistic assessments.

This growing excitement and renaissance not only created a stampede for slaves but also for marriage contracts. The Mathomdale Fair that year was exceptional for the number of marriages negotiated including, as we shall see, those among some of the highest families of the Line. There were innumerable mergers and search for brides and grooms. The bride price of prestigious slaves rose to astronomical heights as can be seen by the vast sums offered for the House of Mathom’s own slave, the lady Abigail. In many cases, these marriage negotiations were linked with the rush to buy slaves as well. With slave prices rising so high they threatened to soar beyond the reach of the smaller families and many families joined in marriage with each other to pool their resources in order to acquire the slaves that could guarantee their continuance.

Caught up in this bewildering market was Julie Hawthorne who, to her considerable consternation, daily found her own apparent value sky-rocketing. Just why there was so much interest in what might have normally been thought to be a perfectly ordinary young girl has been the subject of much debate. It seems to have been an entirely speculative interest largely generated by her closeness to the very prestigious slave, the lady Jennifer and not, for the most part, based on any true evaluation of Julie personally. The truth is that only a few people had even the slightest inclination of this young lady’s true worth and even they were only beginning to realise it slowly. But it was market time in Mathomdale and Julie was caught in the maelstrom.


 

Chapter One

 

Sunday afternoons in Mathomdale were for sports and the Sunday afternoon of the summer festival was a sporting event. Sport held a powerful and honoured role in the life of the valley’s community and the inhabitants were deeply devoted to their sporting activities. It was another paradox of the valley that, whereas the local people conducted lives of admirable cooperation and communal mutual dependence, in their sporting activities they were fiercely competitive. There were sporting rivalries within the valley that dated back centuries and venerable old trophies for which the possession of became the objects of fanatical dedication and earnest longing. Sport was taken very seriously indeed in Mathomdale. Nearly everybody participated in at least one form of sporting activity or gaming competition. Even people of less physical capabilities fought out tense battles in the valleys’ bridge, dominoes, darts, billiards or lawn green bowling leagues. The local joke had it that sports and games were the valley’s second most popular leisure activities.

Mathomdale also happened to be very good at sports. Indeed many a professional talent scout looking for promising material would have been astonished by the sheer wealth of potential contained within the valley. A major reason for this of course was the high percentage of Alpha Sensual genes within the valley. That genetic inheritance conferred high physical qualities on the possessors of it. Enhanced people were exactly that; physically and mentally enhanced. Moreover the longevity of their lives extended their physical prime long beyond the normal span of a sporting career. There were centenarians in Mathomdale quite capable of playing sports to Olympic standards.

Assisting this body of undoubted potential was the fact that Mathomdale boasted a sporting infrastructure that was possibly unique in rural Britain and would indeed have been the envy of most large urban centres as well. There were sports fields and sporting facilities the length and breadth of the valley and they were all heavily used. And the facilities were superb as well. Mathom’s own cricket ground was well up to the standard of many a county cricket ground for example. There were no less than five full size golf courses in Mathomdale, two at least of which could have measured up in quality with the best courses in Britain. Both Mathom and Cropton possessed large indoor sporting facilities and the athletics ground at Mathom was second to none. Most large cities in England did not possess an Olympic standard swimming pool at this time. In fact in the whole of England there were only seventeen such pools. In Australia, which had for so long produced generations of internationally famous swimmers, there were forty-seven! Incredibly, of England’s 17 Olympic pools, three were located in Mathomdale. There were at least a dozen tennis courts within the valley, numerous bowling greens, shooting ranges, athletics tracks, gymnasiums, football and rugby pitches and the whole gamut of facilities of a people who loved to play.

Nor was it only the more formalised sports, which were practiced. There was a rich interest in rural sporting activity as well. Hunting had declined much in the last years but angling was still popular in the valley and in equestrian sports alone the valley could have taken on most comers without fear for there were numerous stables and a large proportion of the young people in the valley were astride a horse almost as soon as they could walk. In the days when the winter snows had been more reliable there’d even been a little ski lift to the top of Arcombe Fell and in hard winters when the village pond in Mathom had frozen over it was popular for skating. There was even talk in the valley of building a skating rink. Mathomdale loved to dance and with its several ballrooms it excelled in ballroom dancing and there was even a little ballet school near Rickholme.

Of course the valley owed this remarkable sporting infrastructure to the wealth and patronage of Mathom Hall that donated generously to the leisure activities in the valley. It was an enlightened policy and one, which the neutral observer might have ruefully noted, should have passed as a fine example for the rest of the country as a whole. At this time in its history England was suffering somewhat of a malaise in the achievements of its sportsmen and women. In fact it would not to be unfair to say that for a nation of such wealth and possibility the underachievement of its population in the sports arena was little more than a disgrace and a source of national humiliation. Inadequate facilities, poor coaching, the decline of sports at school and the consequent failure to interest young people in active outdoor pursuits all contributed to this malaise. England was raising a generation of slothful, unfit young people quite incapable for the most part of taking on the rest of the world on the sports field. Brazilian children spent their childhood kicking footballs or, failing that, tin cans around the street. English children sat indoors and played computer games. Brazil routinely produced magnificent and scintillatingly exciting national football teams. England produced overpaid mediocrities unable to compete at the highest levels. Even in the major football league in England foreign-born players far outnumbered home grown English ones. The nation had to rely on foreigners to entertain them on the football field. It was a disgrace.

It is a shame therefore that our hypothetical talent scout had never taken the time to attend the sporting events at the Mathomdale summer festival. It was a shame that the closed world of the valley had never been brought to his attention, that nobody had ever said, “You’re looking for some real talent? Get yourself to Mathomdale!” For in Mathomdale he would have found material in abundance to regain the respect for English sporting prowess. It was not just the local population either for Alpha Sensual sportsmen and women came from all over Northern England to avail themselves of the facilities and to compete for the innumerable trophies the valley boasted.

They were good too. They had to be good for the standards were very high indeed. It was almost a closed alternative sporting world to that of the outside. Wide screen televisions showing national or international sporting events were nearly universal in English pubs by this time but they were nearly unknown in Mathomdale. There would be far more interest locally in a showdown between two of the valley’s top football teams than there would be in an England international match and, it must be said, probably more entertainment to boot! Astonishingly several unofficial world records had been broken on the athletics field in Mathomdale and British records were broken routinely although they were rarely if ever claimed. The valley was keenly interested in its own sporting events but those of the outside world hardly impinged at all on it. In the late nineteen nineties a world class international chess master made the mistake of competing in an open chess contest in Mathomdale and barely escaped with his reputation intact, a feat he would never have achieved if he’d been fool enough to take on Julie Hawthorne! Mathomdale produced world-beaters with monotonous regularity.

 But of course Mathomdale would never boast of the extraordinary sporting talent at its disposal to the outside world. To do so would have been to advertise the unique qualities of the Alpha Sensual human being to society at large and such an overt declaration of those qualities had been anathema to the Line since time out of mind. The Line would not compete with those not born to the Goddess yet; was not ready to reveal itself and display those differences that set it apart from the rest of humanity. It was tacitly agreed upon among the Line that there may yet come a day when such a thing must needs occur and it had long been a forum of speculation as to what would the performance of Alpha sportsmen and women might be on the international stage but that day was not yet…. quite.

Many of the sports played in the valley were represented at the summer festival but the emphasis was on athletics and country sports such as equestrianism. Other than the traditional Mathom versus Cropton cricket showdown there were few team sports however. More stress was laid upon individual performance at the summer festival games since the games attracted competitors from all over Northern England with little affinity for the team rivalries of the valley. Of course rivalries did emerge in spite of this and there was always somewhat of an unofficial gauging of performances between the valley’s competitors and other regions such as Brawton or the coastal regions.

 Combat sports were also part of the valley’s sporting heritage with fencing and, in latter years, Eastern Marshall arts being popular although boxing, with its increased likelihood of actual physical harm had no real roots in the valley. These were generally under-represented at the summer festival however with the notable exception of wrestling. Wrestling had a long history in Mathomdale and Mathomdale rules had pervaded the Line generally and become popularised well beyond the confines of the valley. Indeed at this years’ festival the heavy presence of a military contingency had made possible a much-anticipated inter-service match between champions representing the army and navy respectively with heavy betting and much financial outlay riding on the result.

In fact the military expected to do very well at the summer games. It was considered for instance that they would sweep all before them in the shooting contests and certainly had enough strength in depth to dominate the cross-country running events. They even had hopes for the Triathlon hoping that their edge in the cross country section would give them an advantage although in this instance they faced formidable opposition from the Brawton contingency with their cycling prowess on the run from Marveaux to Mathom and the valley’s own swimmers who expected to leave their opponents standing on the swim across Mathom Hall lake. They hoped for no such opposition however on the rock climbing event on the cliffs at Aliston Crag, a relatively new event reflecting the growing popularity for climbing in the valley. Mathomdale certainly had some good climbers and pot-holers but the military happened to have elements of alpine troops presence and these were supremely confident of cleaning up in those events.

Not all the sports were taken so seriously however. Some of the games were just for fun. These mostly included the children’s sports for instance. There were more serious sports for older youngsters but the very young competed in such old traditional contests as the egg and spoon and sack races and one or two other silly events that were unique to Mathomdale and its own customs. There were also sporting events that were simply designed for comic relief. The waiters and serving staff of the valley’s pubs, restaurants and hotels for instance held an obstacle race around the main square, dressed in full traditional style and carrying platters of food and drink that was generally regarded as one of the funniest events of the festival and always keenly watched. Sally from the Mathom Arms had come within a whisker of winning the race the previous year unfortunately losing points by upending a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese over the head of one of the volunteers sitting at tables around the square to act as “customers” along the course. Since the volunteer in question had been a rather stuffy self-opinionated member of the valley council it was widely believed that Sally had deliberately forfeited her leading position in the interests of higher values and communal interest!

With all this multitude of sporting events taking place Jennifer and her ladies in waiting had a busy schedule indeed. There were dozens of prizes and trophies to distribute and several prize awarding ceremonies to attend. In fact the events would carry on into the late afternoon and tea was scheduled to take place at the cricket ground rather than at the Mathom Arms. Jennifer and Alice had a particularly hectic schedule for no sooner were the day’s events concluded then they were obliged to dash back to the Mathom Arms and there change before being whisked off to accompany their Mistress, her guests and their brothers and sisters to dinner at the Old Mill restaurant. Jennifer despaired. Events seem to be contriving against her and conspiring to prevent her spending any time alone with Julie. The clearing of the air between the two girls seemed as distant as ever. Now she would be spending the evening dining out formally whilst the other girls were at liberty to enjoy the festival. She was deeply troubled.