'Who is it?'

“Who is it?”

Cynewulf smiled in relief. His father sounded to be in a laughing mood.

“It’s only the Old Man!” he called.

“We don’t need any more of those,” another, deeper voice replied. “We already have two in here.”

It was the King! That was better than he could have hoped. Surely nothing bad would happen to him now.

“You’re not old!” Cynewulf retorted.

“But I am ugly!” the King groaned. “He got me.”

“Come on in, then,” his father called. “The more ugly old men, the merrier, I always say.”

Cynewulf pushed open the door, but he did not step inside. He could see only the King on the couch before the fire, and so he promptly kneeled to his sovereign, though still in the doorway. The door itself blocked his view of his father—and his father’s view of him. This was no accident.

The door itself blocked his view of his father.

“Good Lord, Alred!” the King laughed. “I don’t know about the old, but wait till you get a look at the ugly!”

“What?” his father asked.

“You’re in for a treat. Come along in here, runt. I shall die a happy man if the Lord God grants me even no more than another thirty seconds of life, that I may have seen your doting pater’s face.”

'I shall die a happy man if the Lord God grants me even no more than another thirty seconds of life.'

“What?” his father laughed nervously.

Cynewulf grinned at the King. The King at least found it funny, though it appeared that the joke would be on his father, and in that case there was always a chance that his father would not see the humor in the situation. Hetty certainly hadn’t.

“Come in! Come in!” The King waved him in, so at last Cynewulf stepped inside.

He compromised by putting on a sheepish smile.

He could not decide whether it was safer to appear shame-​faced or wickedly gleeful, so he compromised by putting on a sheepish smile.

“Holy Juno, mother of Mars!” his father breathed. “What happened to your head, son?”

'What happened to your head, son?'

“I cut it!” Cynewulf said proudly. Feminine hands had tousled his curly head one too many times.

“You cut your own hair? All by yourself?”

Cynewulf would have liked to have said he had, but he could not lie to his father. “I cut off all the front by myself. I borrowed Hetty’s sewing scissors, but I did not steal them. I only didn’t tell her I borrowed them. But I could only reach the front, so Hetty had to cut the back.”

'I cut off all the front by myself.'

“Jupiter! Hetty cut your hair?”

“She didn’t want to. But when she saw what I did, she started to cry, and then she said it was so awful being short on the top and long in the back, she had to finish it for me.”

“I don’t know what to say… All your baby curls…”

'All your baby curls...'

“Now, that’s the problem!” Cynewulf cried in outrage. “I am not a baby any longer! I am eight years old. That is definitely a boy, and not a baby. And Bruni is the baby now, and pretty soon you will have another baby of your own. So if you want that baby to have curls, he may. But I shall not.”

“But… what did you do with them?” his father asked.

“I burned the ones I cut, so no one would know,” Cynewulf said, and he was annoyed when the King immediately began laughing at him. “Excuse me, I am talking here,” he huffed. “But,” he said to his father, “Hetty saved the curls she cut, so if you want one you may ask her. But I don’t want any girls to have them. Stop laughing at me, you—r Majesty!”

'Stop laughing at me, you--r Majesty!'

“Sorry!” the King choked.

“And Hetty said I had to come and tell you. So I did.”

“And what am I supposed to do now?” his father asked.

“I don’t know. I suppose it’s not worth a spanking.”

“I suppose not,” his father said, beginning to smile.

'I suppose not.'

“It will grow back, Hetty said. And anyway, I have had my hair trimmed before, to keep it out of my eyes. So now it will be a long time before it grows back into my eyes, which will save Osric some work.”

“Osric will appreciate your thoughtfulness,” the King said.

“I know!” Cynewulf grinned at this recognition of his cleverness.

“But, Old Man, you do realize that old men such as your father and I wear their hair long?”

“I know.”

“And on the road to Long, there are the way stations of Curly and Cute.”

'And on the road to Long, there are the way stations of Curly and Cute.'

“I know. But perhaps it will grow back straight like my brother’s.”

“I’m afraid that is unlikely,” his father said. “You have my own unruly head and not your mother’s. Inside and outside,” he said with a sad smile.

Cynewulf did not quite understand what he meant. He did not remember much about his mother, except that he had cried and cried when she had died. He had been told that she was beautiful and clever and brave, and he had a lock of her hair to know that it had been blue-​black and smooth like Dunstan’s and Gwynn’s.

Her name alone sufficed to douse all his father's gaiety.

But in his mind, his mother was mostly associated with the sick feeling he got whenever she was mentioned, and this was because her name alone sufficed to douse all his father’s gaiety. It would sometimes take hours for it to flame up again. He was sorry it had been mentioned now.

“Do you remember how long it took him to grow hair in the first place?” the King asked his father with a wistfulness unusual for him.

'Do you remember how long it took him to grow hair in the first place?'

“And how I used to tease Matilda about it,” his father said, “and ask her whether he was planning to have a scalp of the same pilosity as her cousin Magnus’s upper lip?”

“Good God’s blood! That mustache of his!” the King laughed.

“And how proud she was when his curls finally came in? That was one hand you always liked to have in your hair, Old Man,” his father said, but his voice was quavering at the edge of tears.

'That was one hand you always liked to have in your hair, old man.'

This was not at all the effect Cynewulf had hoped to produce. If he had known, he would have left his hair alone.

“And I too, in mine,” his father choked.

“Now, Alred,” the King drawled. “That’s a different sort of curls entirely.”

His father choked again, but this time on a laugh. “Damn you!”

“If this runt starts cutting those off, then you have my permission to bawl.”

'If this runt starts cutting those off, then you have my permission to bawl.'

“Damn you, Sigefrith!” his father laughed.

Cynewulf laughed too, but only in relief, for he did not understand the joke.

“Damn this runt for laughing,” the King said and leaned forward to lay his big hand on the top of Cynewulf’s head. “And damn you for cutting off your hair. It was an excellent handle for grabbing your head and shaking some sense into it.”

Cynewulf giggled, gleeful now. He had never minded having his hair mussed by men, and apparently curls were not necessary for this.

“I don’t think you will manage to make it lie flat, though,” his father said to the King, who was attempting to brush Cynewulf’s hair down with his hand. “It curls even without the curls.”

'It curls even without the curls.'

“That’s all right,” Cynewulf said, “as long as it’s too short to be played with.”

“If that’s what you’re worried about,” his father said, “be forewarned that you will have any number of hands on your head, at least over the next few days, as everyone comes to terms with this great loss.”

The King snatched his hand away. “Already I can’t resist.”

'Already I can't resist.'

Cynewulf sighed. “Hetty couldn’t stop touching it and crying. Father, she says she hopes you will forgive her. And you had better, because it was my idea.”

“Forgive her!” his father laughed. “I suppose she did what she could to save you from humiliation, Old Man. And if she had the sense to save a few of your curls from the fire, then I shall only wish to express to her my gratitude. It is I who should be asking forgiveness of your poor mother, who will soon be looking down from Heaven onto the top of your head, and if she does not fall off her cloud in horror, it will be a lucky thing.”

'If she does not fall off her cloud in horror, it will be a lucky thing.'

“She will forgive you,” Cynewulf immediately assured him, fearing another digression into tears. “I burned some of my curls, so they probably went to Heaven in the smoke. And anyway, as Egelric always says, there is nothing like a woman for forgiveness, and that is why I should always go tell Hetty first when I am bad.”

“Is that so?” his father laughed. “Is that the old sir’s fatherly advice to you?”

“It works, too!” Cynewulf giggled. “Sometimes she doesn’t even tell you!”

'Sometimes she doesn't even tell you!'

“Sigefrith?” His father was no longer paying him any attention.

Cynewulf turned. It was the King who had gone off into tears.

“Did I say something bad?” Cynewulf asked.

'Did I say something bad?'

“No, no, Old Man.” He heard his father rising from his chair. “Sigefrith?”

“She keeps telling me she forgives me!” the King sobbed. “And I don’t even know what I did!”


Cynewulf stepped awkwardly out of the way so his father could go sit on the couch beside the King.

Cynewulf stepped awkwardly out of the way.

“Why don’t you go up and tell Hetty to keep those curls safe?” his father murmured to him.

“It’s Saint Catherine’s Day,” the King said.

“I know…”

“And she went to stay with her brother so she won’t have to sleep with me!”

“Old Man!” his father whispered.

Cynewulf went out, uncomprehending.

Cynewulf went out, uncomprehending.