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Northwest Lancashire, England
"It's an elf bolt, miss! A real and truly one!"
"An actual arrow, made by an elf?" Mairey Faelyn gave a properly astounded gasp, then oooed grandly. The children scooted in closer to her as she studied the barbed flint arrowhead in little Orrin's coal-begrimed palm. "Amazing!"
"Found it myself, I did!" The boy was perched with elfin lightness on a bale of moldering woolsacks in the abandoned fulling mill, a changeling if ever there was one.
He was wearing Mairey's hat her father's, really a tweedy, sagging-brimmed relic of his folklore field-collecting. It was dear and dilapidated, and reminded her of the wonderful years she'd spent following him into hip-narrow caves and weeping catacombs, collecting folktales and marvels from every part of Britain.
"Hey, I got three of 'em, Orrin!" Geordie leaped into the center of the pack, plucked back an imaginary bow string, and shot an equally imaginary arrow into the sagging rafters. "Yep, the sky cracked open one night during a storm and 'n elf bolts fell right out of the clouds."
"Imagine that!" Mairey had seen hundreds of such arrow flints; had a very fine collection of her own in her library at Galcliffe College. And although she knew they had been hewn by ancient human. hunters not by elves and witches she loved the folklore far better than the facts.
She loved the children's tales most of all. "Where did you find this very fine specimen, Orrin?"
"In the barrow field, last winter."
The Daunton Barrow. She'd heard of the ancient burial mound but had never seen it.This was a coal town; the sacred site was probably a slag heap by now, but worth a visit.
"Is the barrow field far, Orrin? Will you take me there?"
"Oh, no, miss!" Orrin slid off the bale, shaking his head gravely. "We can't go there. It's a dragon's barrow!"
"A dragon! Here in Daunton?" She'd never heard of a worm tale this far west of the Bleasdale Moors. "Does he have a name?"
Orrin glanced around at his fellows and their smudged faces, looked past them to the open door with its afternoon glare, and then blinked back at Mairey. "Balforge."
Everybody gasped in delicious dread and then wrestled each other for a closer spot, primed for a whopping good story.
Orrin opened his mouth to continue, but Geordie, ever the brinksman, thunked a stone onto the floor, startling everyone and missing Mairey's toes by an inch.
"This here's one of his fangs!"
Orrin snorted. Everyone else oooed, Mairey loudest of all, though Balforge's fang was, in dull, scholarly reality, a primitive flint axhead. The wonder was that these children called it a dragon's fang. That was certainly worth a footnote in the book she was compiling on folk beliefs.
She picked up the axhead by its blade, and the boys tumbled over each other to get a better look.
"Careful miss! Could be poisoned! Just like his scales! "
"They shoot out of him like quills when he's angry!"
"His wings are as wide as the sky!" Geordie wedged himself and his part of the story into the space beside Mairey. "And when he roars, he scorches the forest "
"And when he gets hungry," Orrin said, eyeing Geordie and nodding sagely, "he eats virgins."
Mairey bit back a laugh, her fingers itching to write this all down. "Which are?..."
"Oh, very much like onions, my gran told me."
"Ah." Mairey rescued her notebook and stub of a pencil from under the dragon's fang and quickly wrote, Balforge: fire-breathing, poisoned-scaled, foul-tempered virgin-eater.
"And he lived right here!"' Orrin stomped his foot on the planking. " 'Neath our village. For tenhundred years, way long before the mine came."
Mairey's chest filled up so fast with red-hot anger, her next breath was a billow of steam.
Bloody coal barons and their bloody mines.
Balforge was the product of Daunton's despair. A wicked, relentless beast with a heart as hard and black as the outcropping of coal that had bred Daunton's voracious mine.
She wanted to hug Orrin and Geordie and all the other boys gathered around her, but they would find no dignity in her sympathy, and might even run from the meddlesome stranger.
"What do you suppose gave Balforge such a foul temper, Orrin?"
"Treasure, miss," he said, spreading his arms to encompass the whole of the mill. "Had a heap of shiny gold and stolen silver and pirate's jewels that he was guarding "
But then Orrin's tale seemed to dry up on his tongue, and exited his small chest with a rasping gulp and a whispered "Bleedin' cockles!"
Suddenly every child had gone silent, their gazes fixed with Orrin's on something behind her. Something huge and terrifying, by the wide-eyed, gapemouthed looks on their little faces.
She began to feel a niggling fear of her own, a compelling coldness catching at her ankles, a pinpoint of prickling heat between her shoulder blades. She rose slowly from the clinging tangle of boys, then turned and tucked them behind her skirts.
"Balforge," Orrin whispered.
Sweet silver acorns! The towering shape in the timbered doorway could truly have been Daunton's dragon-it was tall enough by half again as he stepped out of the afternoon sunlight that blazed crimson across his massive shoulders into the colorless shadows of the mill.
"Just a man, Orrin." Though Mairey wasn't altogether sure what sort of man she was looking at. He lacked barbed scales and poisoned fangs, and his wings were only a black greatcoat that draped to his calves, but that was demon fire dancing in his dark eyes as he swung his gaze across the trembling huddle.
Not a breath stirred, nor a muscle, as each of them, Mairey included, waited to be roasted and eaten...