THE NESTINGBOX - why don't Ernestine's pet dragons like the Great Green? A free online, printable story
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THE NESTINGBOX

by Emma Laybourn

There was a raucous scream outside the kitchen window. Ernestine jumped, spilling cornflakes all over the floor. Something large banged on the window, squawked and flapped away.

'Blast those dragons,' said Ernestine's mother, still reading the book propped up against the teapot. 'There'll be no peace until they fly the nest.'

'It was your idea to put up a nestingbox,' Ernestine reminded her, scooping cornflakes back into the carton.

'I know, I know,' said her mother ruefully. 'I thought it would be educational. I didn't expect banshee howling half the night and dead rats all over the place.'

Ernestine frowned through the window. At the far end of the garden, the nestingbox was swaying alarmingly on its pole as the nestlings fought over something grey and red and ragged.

'They've caught a squirrel,' she said. 'Look, one of them's trying to flap its wings. I wonder when they'll learn to fly?'

'Sooner the better,' said her mother glumly.

The baby dragons were already the size of crows. The morning sun flashed off their coppery scales as they fought over the squirrel. Their mother Yoyo, who was as big as a goose, watched fondly.

Baby dragon in the nestingbox, from the free kids' story by Emma Laybourn

'School?'

'I'm just going, Mum.' Seeing that her mother looked dejected, Ernestine tried to think of something nice to say about the dragons. 'They really are educational. No-one else in my class keeps dragons.'

'Really?' Her mother's face brightened. 'You could always invite some of your friends over to have a look at them.'

Ernestine packed her astronomy books without answering. She had already invited several friends to come and see her dragons: there was little point in telling her mother their response.

'Common dragons? No thanks. They're not real dragons, are they?'

'Those little dragons are boring,' Alberta had added. 'And they smell.' Ernestine no longer counted Alberta as one of her friends.

Unfortunately, however, it was true. They did smell. Ernestine breathed through her mouth as she walked down the garden path to the coach stop. There she stood panting miserably, and wondering how it was she could still smell dragon even when she wasn't using her nose.

Yoyo shrieked and swooped at her head.

'Ouch! Get out of my hair!' Ernestine brushed the mother dragon off irritably and watched her erratic flight across the fields on yet another hunting trip.

Terrible flyer, thought Ernestine. She nearly hit that tree. Not even a scrap of grace.

With a clatter of hooves, the school coach pulled up.

'That your dragon?' asked the coachman, as Ernestine clambered aboard. 'Wouldn't touch them myself. Can't tame them, you see. Give me griffins any day. Now there's a lovely beast, your griffin. Loyal as they come and good for burglars too.'

'Really,' said Ernestine politely.

'Not much to look at, is it, your common dragon? Shame that's all you'll see round here these days. You don't get the Great Green Dragons any more like in my pa's day.'

'Really.'

The coachman shook his head regretfully. 'I remember him saying how all this forest used to just swarm with Great Greens. Huge they were, roosting all over the place. Not any more.'

'Really,' repeated Ernestine as haughtily as she could, but there was no stopping the coachman.

'The air used to be thick with them, he said. Magnificent they were. Not like your common dragon...' By the time she arrived at school, Ernestine had had quite enough of dragons.

Stepping off the coach, she looked around, puzzled. The school courtyard was much noisier than usual. Instead of lining up in silence, girls raced around shouting, or huddled in murmuring clumps. The teachers were huddling too, pointing and gazing up at the school roof.

'What's going on?' asked Ernestine grumpily. 'Not another fire drill?'

Before anyone could answer her, she saw.

A shape detached itself from the granite gargoyles ranged along the roof. Its shadow fell across the courtyard and silenced the shouts.

It was as big as a barn. Slowly raising an arched neck, it spread wide a pair of enormous wings, dark green veined with red.

Down below, everyone sighed in unison. 'Aaaaah!'

The Great Green Dragon ignored its enraptured audience. With a thunderclap of its huge wings, it took off. Soaring high above the spires of the school, it circled the observatory dome before drifting away, scarcely flapping, towards the forest.

A thin haze of yellow smoke hung in the air behind it; and there was a powerful smell of sulphur.

Ernestine wrinkled her nose. 'And you call my dragons smelly!'

'It nested on the roof over half-term,' said her friend Marsha dreamily. 'Isn't it huge! Wasn't it beautiful!'

'Hmph,' said Ernestine.

'It's laid four eggs up there. We're going to have a whole dragon family! I can't wait for them to hatch out. We'll be in all the papers!'

As someone with five dragons in her own back garden, Ernestine wasn't about to be easily impressed. She marched into school and unpacked her books for the first lesson as if nothing unusual had happened.

She soon found out, however, that she was the only girl in the school whose head was not full of Great Green Dragons.

All through Astronomy, her chattering classmates peered hopefully out of the windows. In Illuminations, everyone scrambled for the dragon manuscripts to copy, and complained when there weren't enough to go round. Ernestine pointedly chose a manuscript about toadstools; but nobody was paying her any attention.

Zoology was the worst. The teacher cancelled the lesson on salamanders to talk about dragons instead. For once, everyone in the class was agog, full of questions and ideas. Everyone, that is, except Ernestine.

Marsha put her hand up.

'Please, Miss, Ernestine's got common or garden dragons in a nestingbox at her house.'

'That's nice, Ernestine,' said Miss Delavere. 'And can you tell us what they eat?'

'Rats,' said Ernestine. 'Mice. Squirrels. Birds. They ate worms when they were small.'

'Oh, yuck!' cried Alberta.

'Of, course, the common dragon only eats small animals,' began Miss Delavere.

'Rabbits,' said Ernestine defensively. 'Weasels. Dogs, if they can catch them.' This was not strictly true, although she had once seen Yoyo make an unsuccessful attack on a poodle.

'Thank you, Ernestine. Of course the common dragon is not really comparable to the Great Green. It's rather like comparing a tabby cat to a tiger. Who can tell me what the Great Green Dragon eats?'

'Sheep!'

'Horses!'

'Pigs!'

'Deer!'

'Children,' muttered Ernestine.

'Oh, yuck! That's horrid, Ernestine. Anyway,' said Alberta, 'it's not even true, is it, Miss? Great Green Dragons never eat people. Everybody knows that. Ernestine's just jealous because hers only eat worms.'

Ernestine fell silent. Since no-one wanted to talk about anything but the Great Green Dragon, she stayed silent for the rest of the day.

* * * * *

It turned out that Marsha was right about the newspapers. Within a few days, the school was famous. When Ernestine got off the coach in the mornings, crowds of sightseers were already pressed against the school gates, hoping for a glimpse of green.

After the eggs hatched, things got worse. It was like being under siege. The Headmistress resigned herself to the situation and threw the gates open to visitors at a guinea a time. 'To go towards the new Observatory,' she announced.

The dragon-watchers weren't deterred. The school grounds were always full of people milling around with cameras and ice-cream and binoculars. When they departed, they left behind a carpet of empty crisp packets.

'Disgusting,' said Ernestine severely. 'And those dragon fledglings are disgusting too. I can't think why anyone would pay to see them. Nasty scrawny screechy things. And the whole school reeks of sulphur and dragon droppings.'

She was talking to herself, because it was lunchtime and Marsha had gone up to the battlements to look at the dragons.

Ernestine sighed. All her class had started taking their lunch up on to the turrets, where they could dragon-spot and make rude comments about the people down below. Ernestine kicked a pencil across the floor and the rattle echoed round the empty classroom.

If even Marsha abandoned her, she might as well go up there too. Unwillingly, she trudged over to the West Tower and climbed the dank and narrow spiral staircase to the roof.

'Hallo!' Alberta greeted her. 'Here's our resident dragon expert condescending to pay us a visit! What do you make of these, then, Ernestine? They're a bit more impressive than your tidgy dragons, aren't they?'

They were. Ernestine had never been this close to the young Green Dragons before. They squawked and yelped and tried to hustle each other out of their tatty nest of branches wedged behind the gargoyles.

They were already twice the size of Yoyo. Their mother, ignoring them from the roof ridge, was at least ten times bigger again.

Far down below, a coach pulled up by the school gates. Something large and pink came flying out of its window and landed heavily in the courtyard. The crowd of sightseers shrank away from it.

'What's that?' demanded Ernestine.

'Leg of pork,' said Marsha. 'They're always bringing things like that. Watch!'

There was a noisy rush of wings. The mother dragon launched herself from the roof, screamed once and plunged towards the ground. As her talons sank into the meat, the man in the coach was busy snapping with his camera.

'It's like a butcher's shop down there some days,' said Marsha. 'Look! Here's another one.'

As the dragon delivered the pork to her raucous, greedy babies, a second coach pulled up. This time it was a dead chicken that thudded onto the ground. The driver waited hopefully, camera at the ready.

'That won't work,' said Alberta scornfully. 'It doesn't like chicken. Or rabbit. Or worms,' she added with a sidelong glance at Ernestine.

'It likes pork and beef best,' said Marsha. She pulled a piece from the beefburger in her hand and tossed it daringly up into the air.

The mother dragon, gliding lazily above the parapet, swerved in mid-flight to snap at it. The great head loomed alarmingly close; a yellow eye gleamed at Ernestine. The dragon banked, swooped again - and then it landed.

It alighted on the battlements only a few metres away. It steadied itself, and folded its wings.

'Oh, glory be!' breathed Marsha.

The dragon did not move. Towering over the girls, it merely stared at them with expressionless eyes. They shrank back against the wall as its sulphurous breath wafted over them.

'It wants some more beefburger, stupid!' hissed Alberta.

Marsha hurled the rest of the beefburger at its head. The dragon ignored it.

'What's it doing?' she whispered.

The dragon hopped awkwardly down from the parapet and took two ungainly steps towards them. It was much clumsier on its feet than in the air; and much uglier too, close up. Ernestine could see every knob and wrinkle on its skin.

She pressed her back against the wall, feeling for the door to the staircase. She was praying that her textbooks were right in asserting that dragons never attacked people. All dragons? How did they know?

'Shoo!' said Marsha feebly.

The dragon took no more notice of this than it had of the beefburger. Instead it stared directly at Ernestine with its enormous, black-slitted eyes. It lowered its huge jaw until it was level with her face, and snorted.

Ernestine decided not to wait to find out if the textbooks were right or not. She turned and dived through the doorway, and half slid, half fell down the spiral staircase. She thought she heard the beating of massive wings behind her.

A moment later, the other girls came racing down.

'It's gone! It flew away as soon as you disappeared!'

'I thought it was going to eat me,' said Ernestine. Although she did her best to sound jokey, she was shivering. 'I thought it might have decided to try human for a change.'

'I know why it did that!' declared Marsha. 'You must smell of dragon! Dragons have a very good sense of smell, you know. I expect you have the scent of your little dragons on you, and that confused it.'

Alberta gave a yelp of laughter. 'It probably thought you were its little worm-eating cousin! Why didn't you shake hands?'

'I think it was being friendly,' said Marsha.

'I don't want it to be friendly, thanks very much,' said Ernestine.

'But you're the dragon's friend!' hooted Alberta. 'The dragon expert! It'll probably follow you around now wherever you go.'

'Of course it won't,' said Ernestine firmly. 'What nonsense. Total rubbish.'

* * * * *

Ernestine climbed down from the school coach outside her house and glowered up at the sky.

Sure enough, it was still there. Like an oversized vulture, the Great Green Dragon was circling high above her with outspread wings.

Yoyo bounced up and down in the air, chattering noisily. The babies were cowering in the nestingbox, silent for once.

Ernestine's mother was digging the garden.

'Great Heavens,' she said, staring upwards. 'Is that what I think it is?'

'It followed me all the way home,' said Ernestine gloomily. 'It thought I smelt like a dragon. Marsha says it wants to be friends.'

Her mother watched the dragon wheeling slowly down in huge arcs.

'Friends?' she said uncertainly. 'I hope you're right.'

'Oh, it won't hurt us. They don't eat people.'

Lower and lower drifted the Great Green Dragon.

'Whatever's got into our little one?'

Yoyo was dancing in the air, wings whirring madly, screaming at the top of her voice.

'She wants to be noticed,' said Ernestine.

'Well, it's worked. Here comes our visitor...'

As the Great Green came gliding down to land, Yoyo shot upwards. She flew straight at its head, darting in its face and trying to peck at the yellow eyes.

With one shake of the great head, she was buffeted to the ground. She lay on the grass, crumpled and still.

The Great Green Dragon turned its attention to the nestingbox.

The huge jaws opened to reveal a triple row of stained and jagged teeth. They closed over the nestingbox and began to yank and wrench at it. There was a crack of splintering wood.

'Friends?' exclaimed Ernestine's mother. 'Friends? It wants to eat them!'

She ran up to the dragon, swinging her spade aloft, and walloped it on the nose. 'You leave them alone! You big bully!'

'Mum!' wailed Ernestine, aghast, because the dragon had let go of the mangled nestingbox - which toppled to the ground - and was contemplating her mother with a surprised stare.

'Cannibal!' yelled Mum, and walloped it again.

The dragon snapped at the spade with its jaws and crunched, once. Her mother was left holding a handle.

Spitting out the spade, the dragon turned back to the nestingbox.

The box lay uprooted on the ground, its top and one side ripped away. The baby dragons were trying, uselessly, to hide in its corners.

The Great Green Dragon opened its mouth wide.

'Oh no you don't!' yelled Ernestine. She threw herself face down on top of the broken nestingbox. The young dragons squeaked beneath her, but lay quite still. Ernestine could feel someone's heart beating, very fast, and it wasn't her own.

There was a croaking roar behind her. A sulphurous blast of heat scorched her back. Ernestine gritted her teeth. Another blast like that and her clothes would be on fire - but she mustn't move.

'Take that!' cried her mum's voice, followed by a clang. 'And that!' THUNK.

The dragon hissed like an overheated frying pan. There was a deafening clap of wings, and Ernestine felt a breeze blow across her.

She risked a glance over her shoulder.

The Great Green Dragon was up above her in the air, wings beating so heavily that branches swayed in the wind they created. Croaking harshly, it began to ascend.

'Good heavens,' said Mum. 'I think it's going. We won. Well, I never.'

'What did you hit it with?' asked Ernestine,levering herself up cautiously.

'The watering can. It hardly noticed that. But it didn't like the Wellington boot in the eye. What a coward.' Her mother sounded amazed.

They watched the dragon flap heavily away over the treetops and out of sight.

'It's lazy,' said Ernestine. 'It can get pork and beef back at school with no trouble, and no Wellington boots.' She inspected the subdued and shuddering dragonlets. 'How's Yoyo?'

'She's winded, but I don't think anything's broken.' Mum carried the little dragon over and set her down next to her babies. At once they began to wriggle and squawk for food, while their mother sat dazed and quiet.

'You might have to feed them for a little while,' said Mum, 'while she recovers. Back to the worms, I'm afraid! Or you could try mince.'

'I know where there's plenty of chicken,' said Ernestine. 'I'll bring some home tomorrow.' She sat back on her heels to study her ugly, squally, smelly little brood of dragons, now tumbling around their mother on the grass.

'Well, well,' she said. 'So now we know what Great Green Dragons like best of all to eat. And it's not people, is it, my darlings?'

THE END

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Copyright © 2012 Emma Laybourn

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