Brother Dominic and his fellow monks are scouring the battlefield looking for survivors to tend to when he comes across a head, detached from its body but still talking. It is the head of Egil Grimmsen, storyteller to the vanquished King Penda. Grimmsen refused the king one last story on the night before the battle and now must stay alive until the story is told. The victorious King Edgar is suspicious and sends the head away, where it travels to Brother Dominic’s monastery and then to the house of Thane Redwald and finally back to court with Redwald’s daughter Osyth. Each time, the head tells a story, funny or heroic or pointed, according to the audience.

Putting aside the fantasy of the talking head, the book is a framework for a few folk stories, all of which are worth reading in their different ways, although none is sparkling. The language used is occasionally quite earthy and vulgar. The attitude of the monks to the head – to treat it more or less as a holy relic – is probably meant to be a bit of a fun-poke at the credulity of such people, but not too much is made of it and I would hesitate to make an issue out of an absurdity. We learn that the reason the head wants to pay its due to King Penda is because of that King’s patience and perseverance in hearing Egil tell of the tragedy in his life (his brother married his fiancee) night after night without tiring or sending him away. For this “heartsease” he owes the king the story he denied him on the night before battle.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.