There was once a cruel queen who would bear no singing in her castle. She had forbidden it entirely.
One day as the queen walked through the dim, stone passages she heard a sound from the great hall. A voice, a girl’s voice, in a lilting country song. Furious, the queen turned aside into the hall and found a scrawny servant girl scrubbing the floor and twittering like a lark. She immediately called for her guard to take the girl and throw her into the dungeon.
Now the servant girl had meant no harm in singing. Perhaps she had forgotten the rule, which had been told her among so many others, or perhaps she had thought no such rule could truly be. No singing in the castle? Why ever not? But there she was, in the dungeon, with nothing but a little bread and water every day, and only the rats to keep her company.
Three days later the queen brought her back into the great hall. There were all the queen’s household, from the highest noble to the least of the servants, assembled together. The queen sat in her high place, and before her was a stand on which stood a man in a dark hood, holding an axe.
The girl was brought up to the stand before the queen.
“Because you have decided that you can sing in my castle against my express wishes,” the queen said, “Then sing you shall. You will sing every song that you can think of, and when you are done and can think of no more, then you shall be beheaded. Now, go ahead, you may begin. Sing for us.”
The girl stared from the shiny blade of the axe to the block that was for her neck and the basket that was for her head, and not a single note of a single song would come into her mind.
“What about that song you were singing the other day?” the queen asked, her face white and her smile wide. “Can’t remember? Very well, then, we can proceed with the execution.”
The girl closed her eyes as the guards led her forward to the block. She took a deep breath, and then began to sing in a shaky voice. The queen waved for the guards to stop. They stepped back a pace as the song grew and filled the hall with sweet music. When it had ended, the girl began another.
She sang songs of home and of far away, songs of freedom and war, songs of love and songs of loss. The queen’s household listened, silent, captivated, while the queen’s face grew whiter and whiter. When at last the girl faltered, exhausted, it was long after sundown. She hung her head and shook it sadly. She could remember no more.
Somewhere in the crowd, someone began another song.
The girl raised her head, and joined in singing. Yes, she knew this one too. The queen shouted for her to stop, but she kept on while the soldiers searched the crowd for the second singer. But a third joined in, and then everyone was singing together.
“Enough!” The queen shouted, “Carry out the execution now!” but no one could hear her for the singing, except the guards and the executioner, who carried out her order.
The crowd fell silent with the axe, but strangely enough, the girl’s voice did not. The very stones of the castle seemed to echo with it. Alone, the sweet voice finished the song, and then began another.
The queen sent everyone away, and the girl’s body was taken and buried, but there was no way for the queen to bury the voice that continued to float through the great hall, singing song after song. It sang through the night, and was still singing the next morning. At first the queen pretended she could not hear it, but it sang right through breakfast and all the next day. The queen could hear it in her highest tower and even in her deepest dungeon, singing the songs of home and far away, the songs of war and freedom, the songs of love and loss. At last, driven mad, the queen fled the castle and was never heard from again. But if you would like to hear the singing for yourself, only go to the ruins and stand in what was once the great hall, and you will hear it yet today.