Cynewulf and Heafoc scarcely hesitated in their game, but Haakon went as stiff as a reed. It was not so much with the hope of remaining unnoticed as with his ten years’ experience of the futility of running from adults when one had been found out in a misdeed.

Hetty hustled down the narrow corridor faster than pregnant ladies ordinarily moved. Well might she call, “Old Man!” – her eyes were nevertheless fixed on Haakon’s face.

Haakon politely stepped back to make room for her to pass, but to his dismay she stopped before him. Politely he bowed and said, “I bid Your Grace good morning,” as his grandmother had taught him.

“Haakon…” Her soft voice quavered like the bleating of a ewe, and Haakon had the unnerving impression that Hetty believed he had found her out in a misdeed.

Haakon had the unnerving impression that Hetty believed he had found her out in a misdeed.

Then she seemed to recollect herself, and she said, “And Heafoc. Good morning boys. Old Man…”

Cynewulf giggled and ducked behind Haakon. “No old men here!” he squeaked, in apparent attempt at ventriloquism, though even his ordinary speaking voice was already higher than Haakon’s.

'No old men here!'

“Old Man,” Hetty continued, unfooled, “I wish you would go and get dressed for Mass.”

“I am dressed for Mass!” Cynewulf wailed. “We’re not playing any dirty sweaty games!”

“Or unchristian games,” Heafoc giggled.

“During Ad–vent!” Cynewulf concluded.

Haakon held his breath, careful not to laugh or even smile. In his house Advent was not taken lightly, and he was already laboring under a guilty conscience.

“Then I wish you would go comb your hair,” Hetty said.

'Then I wish you would go comb your hair.'

“I already did comb my hair!” Cynewulf groaned. “It’s not my fault if it goes so curly you can’t tell!”

“Then I wish you would comb it again with water,” Hetty insisted. “And, Heaf, please go with him and see that he does it with a comb and does not simply empty the pitcher over his head. I wish to speak with Haakon.”

“Was he bad?” Cynewulf gasped, a little too eagerly for Haakon’s tastes.

'Was he bad?'

“No no,” Hetty cooed.

She put out her soft little hand, and Haakon put his own into it with the same mingled dread and tenderness a man might feel upon being led to execution, granting that the executioner were a dear, gentle lady who would cuddle and comfort him a while before killing him. Fortunately Hetty was generous with her pardons and had stayed many a sentence.

“Go on, boys. Are the girls in their sewing room?”

“No!” Cynewulf groaned as he and Heafoc hopped off ahead. “They’re probably still getting dressed for Mass and combing their hair! She thinks I’m a girl,” he grumbled to Heafoc as they disappeared down the corridor.

How Haakon longed to go with them! He would have gladly combed – nay! even washed his hair! But Hetty’s soft little hand held his with surprising fastness, and he could only walk beside her as she waddled into the girls’ flowery little room.

He could only walk beside her as she waddled into the girls' flowery little room.

He helped her sit, as his father had taught him, and bowed expectantly, waiting for her to suggest he take a chair. Instead she sucked nervously at her lower lip, and her gaze fluttered several times between his face and her lap.

Her gaze fluttered several times between his face and her lap.

Again Haakon had the novel impression that Hetty believed he had brought her there to scold her. His own generosity began to swell up in him, for Hetty was a rather jolly fellow after all, and rarely told one’s father when one had misbehaved, and let one eat candy during Advent so long as one had cleaned at least one’s breakfast plate.

He did not know what she had done, but he was already prepared to forgive her for it. However, when at last she spoke it was in that ominous tone adults took when they asked questions to which they already knew the answers.

When at last she spoke it was in that ominous tone.

“Haakon, dear, did you leave something in my room the other day?”

Ten years’ experience had taught Haakon the futility of lying to adults who already knew the truth, but he knew that there was sometimes room to dodge.

“Do you mean lose something?” he asked hopefully.

“No, I mean leave something for me to find later. Did you?”

Her eyes looked so pained that Haakon lost the heart to dodge. It seemed he had done something very, very bad.

“I suppose so,” he lipped.

“Do you know what it was?”

“I suppose it was a poem… I didn’t touch any of your things, though!” he pleaded.

'I didn't touch any of your things, though!'

“I know you didn’t, dear. But did you read it?”

“No… I don’t like poems, you know,” he explained, relieved he could plausibly deny having committed at least this crime.

A pained smile flickered across Hetty’s face, but the interrogation continued.

“Do you know who wrote it?”

'Do you know who wrote it?'

Haakon paused to reflect. What if his grandfather had copied the poem from someone else? Was this as great a crime for adults as for little boys with Latin lessons to finish? Was it his grandfather who was truly in trouble?

Out of loyalty he mumbled, “I’m not supposed to tell.”

“I think you can tell me, dear, since it was meant for me. Was it your grandfather?” she whispered.

Her lips remained parted after she had pronounced the word, and Haakon could almost hear her eager breath whistling across them as she waited.

'Was it a good poem?'

“Was it a good poem?” he asked cautiously.

Hetty laughed with strange glee and rocked back against the cushions. “It was beautiful!” she whispered fervently. “Beautiful!”

“Then I guess he wrote it,” Haakon grinned. To his mind, anything done well might have been done by his grandfather, and vice versa.

'Then I guess he wrote it.'

Hetty laughed again, and at last Haakon began to relax. Even if she scolded him, he thought it would be one of the complicit “We should not be doing this” scoldings she gave when she was naughty enough to cut a piece of before-​​dinner cake for herself and the children.

“Did he say why he wrote it?” she asked eagerly.

“I suppose because ladies like poems,” Haakon shrugged.

“Not just any poems!” she corrected. “They must be written with feeling!

'They must be written with feeling!'

Haakon only smiled and nodded indulgently. Father Faelan always harassed the boys into singing with feeling, and Haakon had some private feelings of his own about any such activities.

“Will you see him again, dear?” Hetty pleaded with wide eyes. “Before he… he goes away? See him alone? For a little while?”

“I suppose so. I mean to ride ahead with him,” he added proudly.

'I suppose so.'

“If you do, will you please tell him a secret? Will you please tell him I thank him for the poem? And that it was beautiful? And that I loved it so much?” she squeaked.

Hetty had a funny German way of saying “love” as “luff” when she grew excited. Haakon wondered idly how she must pronounce his grandfather’s name. Luff-​​ric?

“Will you?” she whispered. The face she lifted to him was pink from forehead to chin.

'Will you?'

“Of course,” Haakon bowed.

“And will you give him this?” she blurted.

She began to twist and flop around against the cushions, trying to lift her hips up beneath the weight of her pregnant belly so that she might get at the purse she wore low on her belt. Her face turned red from the effort and from her nervous giggling – and perhaps from her sense of naughtiness too, for it was the same flush and the same breathless giggling she made when she cut into the forbidden cake.

“Give him what?” Haakon asked, trying to be helpful.


“This!” she gasped as she extracted a mysterious something from her purse. She thrust it into his hands and wrapped her own hands around them before Haakon could get so much as a glimpse of it. He only knew that it was metallic and cold.

“What is it?” he asked.

“This!” she panted and fell back against the cushions.

Haakon opened his fists and saw he held an old iron key. The business end was a satisfyingly formidable, snaggletoothed affair, hinting at an important lock. The opposite terminated in a graven image of uncertain significance. Haakon decided it looked rather like a sour-​​faced toad with long hair and a crown, squatting upon a dung hill.

'What's it for?'

This was a key far too large to fit a lady’s dainty jewel chest. Haakon thought it had the potential to fit a treasure chest, or barring that, a big, mysterious door.

He asked, “What’s it for?”

Hetty smiled strangely. “He will know.”

“Did he lose it?”

She turned her face to the candles burning beside the little crucifix on the shelf. “No no,” she murmured.

'No no.'

“Is it yours?”

“It is no use to me,” she said vaguely.

Haakon frowned in frustration. She scarcely seemed to notice there was a little boy there any longer, asking her questions.

“Perhaps you should tell me what it’s for anyway,” he wheedled. “He might not guess.”

She looked up at him. “He will know, dear,” she said softly.

“Do you think he might show me?”

'Do you think he might show me?'

“Perhaps he will tell you someday…” She looked back at the candles.

“Can you at least tell me if it opens a chest or a door?” he pleaded.

She swallowed. After a moment she murmured, “A door. To a place where no one goes any more.”

“Is there a treasure there?”

He saw only her profile, only her right eye, and its lid fell closed and flickered like a candle. The other might have shed a tear; he only saw her lift the back of her hand to it.

“I think not, dear,” she quavered. “No one has ever cared to take it before. But I think he might like to have it.”

He saw only her profile.

Haakon nearly groaned. Hetty was a jolly fellow, but only to a point: she did not seem to see the cruelty in giving a deliciously mysterious key to a little boy and failing to tell him what it opened.

Out of desperation he guessed, “Is it in Winchester?”

She sighed and looked up at him. So very giddy as she had appeared a moment before, now she appeared so very sad.

“It is certainly nothing that interests young boys, Haakon. No more than poetry. I am sorry.”

She sighed and looked up at him.

Haakon shrugged and generously said, “It’s all right, Hetty. Never mind.”

After all, he thought, his grandfather might yet tell him what the key opened and what he hoped to find. His grandfather was the very jolliest of jolly fellows, provided one did not stumble across one of the few misdeeds that could make him roar.

“Now I must ask a shameful thing of you, dear,” Hetty said slowly. “God forgive me.” Her face was still and strangely white. “I must ask you to lie.”

'I must ask you to lie.'

Haakon had ten years’ experience in the domain, and nevertheless he thought that being asked to lie by Hetty was an unusual and therefore very solemn thing. He waited.

She lifted her hand to his cheek. “This is a secret between your grandfather and me,” she began with her customary slowness. “And now you. If you cannot be alone with him to give him the key, you must keep it for him until he returns. And if anyone finds it, you must tell them I gave it to you to play with, because you liked it, and I need it no more. Will you do that, if you must? Will you forgive me, and lie for me?”

Over and over she stroked his cheek with her soft hand – not indulgent pats such as one gave to adorable children, but fervent, solemn stroking, as if to memorize the shape of his face. Her hand was hot and shaking.

Haakon felt a tightening in his throat, and though he could not have said why, he almost expected to cry. Perhaps it was because he would miss Hetty. He might not see her again until his grandfather returned, months and months from now.

Haakon felt a tightening in his throat.

He nodded.

She took his face in both hands and pulled it down to kiss it. Then she smacked them on the cushions beside her and pushed herself laboriously to her feet.

“Grandfather said the same thing to me,” he offered helpfully, since she did not move to allow him to help her rise.

“He did? What thing, dear?”

'He did?  What thing, dear?'

“He asked me to lie if anyone else found the poem. But he said it wouldn’t be bad,” he assured her, “because an adult told me to do it.”

“Perhaps so,” she admitted.

“And anyway, he said sometimes we have to lie to help the people we love. And that’s not bad.”

“Perhaps so…” she said thoughtfully.

'Perhaps so...'

Haakon paused to consider this latter idea. Hetty certainly was a jolly fellow for a lady; she could not be blamed for not fully understanding little boys, since she had never been one. Moreover, if he was not mistaken, she had even lied for him in the past: certain rips and stains and broken dishes had mysteriously never been tallied against his account.

“And I do love you, Hetty,” he said.

She smiled suddenly and squeaked, “Haakon!” as though the smile had startled or hurt her, or both.

She put out her arms, and Haakon stepped into them, grateful to hide his hot cheek against her shoulder.

She put out her arms, and Haakon stepped into them.

“You raise generous men in your family,” she whispered, “to tell ladies they are loved, in spite of your dislike for poetry.”

“I don’t like mushiness, as a rule,” Haakon said self-​​importantly, “but I make an exception for you.”

'I make an exception for you.'

“I am so honored.” She giggled and kissed his hair. “And I love you, too.”

Haakon sighed in embarrassed contentment. “Don’t tell anyone,” he whispered, “but I like the way you say that word.”

'I like the way you say that word.'