Once upon a time, a king and queen lived happily together. One day, the King felt restless, and decided to wage war on a heathen lord, infamous for his cruelty and evil. The King gathered a great army, took leave from his wife, and set sail. When the King landed in the foreign realm, his troops conquered all they saw. The King exulted, but the heathen ruler massed his troops elsewhere, and in a few days they rushed forward. A ferocious battle ensued. The King’s men were routed, and the King himself was captured and thrown into a dungeon.
From that day on, the King was driven out every morning with the other prisoners, and forced to plough the fields like an ox. Every night, the King returned to the damp dungeon, exhausted and humiliated. After three years, the King finally befriended a guard, and smuggled a letter to the queen. In the letter, the King told his wife to sell everything in the kingdom and give the money to the evil lord as ransom for the king’s freedom.
When the Queen read the letter, she wept with sorrow. She had not heard from the King and she feared for his life. But now that she knew his fate, she was even more distraught. She pondered the situation. “I cannot go in person to this heathen king,” she reflected, “because then he will make me one of his many wives. And I dare not send a great ransom with anyone else!” The Queen paced in her room. “What shall I do?”
Suddenly the Queen had an idea. She cut off her beautiful, long hair, removed her royal gowns, and donned the simple clothes of a minstrel. Then she took up a lute and secretly left the palace.
The Queen traveled far and wide, disguised as a boy, playing her lute and singing as she went. She traded her songs for passage on ships and journeyed to the foreign lord. She sat outside his castle and began playing her lute. Her songs were so beautiful that even the birds stopped to listen. The heathen king heard the Queen and sent for her.
“Boy,” the lord told the disguised Queen, “your music soothes me. Play your lute and sing for me. Stay for three days, and I shall give you your heart’s desire.” The Queen bowed, and strummed her lute, filling the dark castle with songs of war and love. All that day the heathen ruler listened, so entranced by the Queen’s music that he forgot to eat. The next day, the Queen played even more beautifully, and on the third day, too. Then the Queen stopped.
“My lord,” she said, “I must take my leave. I am a traveler, and the road is my home.”
“Alas!” the dark lord sighed. “But you stayed for three days, so tell me your heart’s desire and I shall give it to you.”
The Queen bowed graciously. “I travel alone, and the solitude often wears on me. Give me one of your prisoners for company, and I shall be grateful.”
“That is easily done,” the heathen monarch declared, and he took the Queen to his dungeon. Among the prisoners, she picked out her husband immediately, although he was thin and scarred from his ordeal The King did not recognize his wife, dressed as a minstrel, and she said nothing to him. The dark lord released the King, and the Queen set off with her husband. They traveled together for many miles, and still the King did not recognize his wife. Nor did she reveal herself. Finally they came to their own country.
“I am the King of this land,” the King told his companion, “and if you release me, I shall reward you greatly.”
“Go in peace,” the Queen said. “I need no reward.”
The King protested. “Let me honor you with a feast,” he said.
But the Queen declined.
The two parted company, and the King walked eagerly to his castle. But the Queen knew a shortcut, and she retuned before him. She took off her minstrel’s clothes, and put on her royal gowns.
All the people acclaimed the King’s return, but when the Queen went to meet him, he turned away from her. “Who is this woman,” the King asked angrily, “who left me to die in prison?” The King’s ministers explained that the Queen vanished the day she received his letter. “Faithless wife!” the King fumed.
The queen returned to her room, put on her minstrel’s cloak, picked up her lute, and went outside and began playing. The King immediately ran out of the castle. “He is the one who freed me!” he exclaimed. Then he took the minstrel’s hand. “Now you cannot refuse me,” the King declared. “You must tell me your heart’s desire, and I shall give it to you.”
“I desire only you,” the Queen said. She shook off her minstrel’s disguise and revealed herself. For a minute, the King was speechless. Then he embraced the Queen, and begged her forgiveness for doubting her. He thanked her for rescuing him, and ordered a double celebration—one for his rescue, and one more for the Queen’s wisdom.