(Disclaimer: It was inspired by J.K. Rowling and written by Valentina Jett... so really, I don't own anything!)

A Tale of Two Tales

By Valentina Jett

Stories change from place to place and from time to time, depending on who is telling them and from whence they came. Here, then, are two versions of a folk tale. Both were collected from people who swore their version was the authentic one. Which is true? You decide...

Version One

Long ago there lived a young king, who ruled his land strongly and well, refusing to be manipulated by counselors who merely wanted to grab power for themselves. He made his own decisions, and his name was spoken with respect in every corner of the land.

One day there appeared at his court a lovely maiden of about the king's own age, one he had never met before, nor heard of. Despite this, she was an ornament to the court, with wit to complement her obvious beauty, for despite being brown rather than golden or black, her hair hung in curls to her waist, and her features were pleasing when she was somber and lovely when she smiled. As well, she was skilled in any number of accomplishments, reading and writing two languages besides her own, singing and playing upon the lute.

Greatest among her skills, though, was her hunting, for she could send arrow from bow to any target one could name. She told stories of hawking expeditions in the fields of her home, but politely refused the loan of a bird from the king's mews, saying that no bird could possibly match the hawk she had left behind.

The king watched her from the corner of his eye for many months, and found his heart ensnared by her beauty and his mind entangled in her wit. He began to create excuses to be where she was, which was often, he discovered, in the Royal Library, reading books, writing letters, or gazing out the windows. One day, he spoke to her, asking what she gazed towards.

"My home," she said. "I love it dearly."

"Yet you left it to come here," he said.

She looked at him through her eyelashes. "A woman may do many things for love, Your Majesty," she said coyly.

The king began to believe that he loved the maiden, and that she loved him in return. More and more often he found himself in her company, and she did not send him away. Finally, one day, he suggested that they ride together.

"Where shall we ride?" she asked.

"Half a day outward and half a day back," said he, "in any direction you like."

"Half a day is so short, Your Majesty," she said sadly. "Could it not be longer?"

"Not if we wish to return to the palace in one day," he said, and then looked again. The maiden's eyes were lowered demurely, but he had caught the flicker of her lashes as she glanced sideways at him.

"Your reputation would be terribly damaged if we rode forth as you seem to suggest," he said.

"Reputations are not everything, Majesty," she said. "But since you insist, half a day outward and half a day back it shall be."

And so it was. But with every day that passed, the king became more and more enraptured by the mysterious beauty. Finally, he called his counselors together and declared that he planned to wed the girl.

"Wed her?" gasped an old lord. "A girl from heaven knows where, with no family and no dowry?"

"She might be a peasant," objected another, "or a merchant's daughter, schooled to act like a lady! Your Majesty cannot wed so below your station!"

"She could even be from one of your enemies," said an old general of the armies, "sent here to spy on you and gather information in your palace, or to assassinate you."

"And there is one other possibility." All eyes turned to the speaker, a man with a small beard who wore a long robe trimmed with fur. He had been a tutor to the young prince, and proved his intelligence so thoroughly that the young king had appointed him to the council. "She could be an uncanny creature, something not of this world, a snare to bring you low not only in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God."

"What then would you suggest I do?" asked the king, shaken by this thought. Now that he recalled it, the maiden had indeed merely appeared at his court from nowhere, but everyone had taken her for granted, as if she had always been there. It smacked of magic, of black sorcery and villainous evil.

"If she is not what I suggest, far be it from me to besmirch the honor of Your Majesty's future bride," the tutor continued. "But if she is... it strikes me that the easiest way to know is to ask if she will take you to visit her family. They may well be some obscure branch of a noble house, or the royalty of one of our neutral neighbors, not wishing to draw attention to themselves. If this is so, then all is well. But if she refuses to take you to them..."

"I understand," said the king, and for once, took his tutor's good advice. He left the council chamber and was soon in the library, where he found the maiden at her endless gazing through the windows. "My dear," he said to her, "would you like to take a journey with me?"

"I would journey with you to the end of the world, my king," she said. "Where do you wish to go?"

"I would meet your family," the king said. "I would meet the father and mother of the lady I wish to wed, if they live, and ask for your hand as is proper. And I would see if you have brothers and sisters, that I may bring them to court and give them advancement."

"Brothers and sisters I have, Your Majesty," said the maiden, smiling at him. "And my father and mother both live, as does my father's brother and my mother's sister. My father is a wise man, and he will not refuse you my hand if there are no other impediments. I hope that you will like my family as well as you like me."

And so they set out immediately. It was not a terribly long journey, for the king's fine black mare and the maiden's carriage covered the distance in two days, staying the night between at an inn. The king was careful to stay far from the maiden's rooms, lest some whisper of impropriety besmirch her whom he wished to make his bride.

On the afternoon of the second day, the maiden leaned from her window and called for the coachman to stop. "We are here, my king," she said.

"Here?" The king looked about him. They had halted in the middle of a vast forest, with no crossroads or building in sight.

"It is not far," she reassured him. "But we must walk there, together and alone. The coach and your horse can wait here until your return."

Hand in hand, they left the road and walked through the thick brush. An owl's hoot sounded overhead, which troubled the king somewhat, for it was still full daylight and owls hunt at night. A rustling as of moving leaves seemed to follow them for a long time, but the king could see nothing in the trees which could have made the sound, and this worried him more. A doe deer and a wild cat both came into their path and stared at them boldly, even suffering the maiden to lay her hand on them before they ran off, and the king was more disturbed than ever. No natural maid could have done such a thing.

A few more steps brought them to a clearing, and now the king knew that he should never have come – for in this clearing stood four great wolves, one white, one black, one brown, and one gray. "These are my brothers and my mother and my father," said the maiden, and her smile was bright and chill. "They wish to meet the man who dared to think he might have me for his own. And the doe deer and the wild cat were my sisters, come to look upon you and see what a proud and foolish creature a king can be. And also another wishes to meet you, O king, and meet in more ways than one – for he has a score to settle with the one who would claim his promised bride!"

With a scream, a hawk of more than natural size dove at the king, red feathers flashing on its wings and tail. The king drew his sword and menaced the creature, driving it back, then turned and ran as quickly as he could, back towards the road – he could hear the baying of the wolves and the scream of the hawk behind him –

He burst onto the road and scrambled onto his horse just in time. The creature needed no urging forward, not when a great white wolf sprang from the underbrush towards its flank – indeed, within a few seconds of finding his seat, the king lost it again, and tumbled from his saddle, sure that he was about to be killed –

But the wolves passed him by, and chased his horse instead, chivying it off the road and into the woods, and the king thought as they passed him that there were five now instead of four, that another black one ran with them, but he could never be truly certain. He walked from those woods, emerging beneath the bright full moon, and found his coach and coachman at the nearest inn, horses and driver both near-mad with fear.

The king returned to his city, thankful for his narrow escape. He married a lady of his own land and never spoke of the uncanny maid again. Sometimes, though, as the years went by, he would be found gazing out the library windows, and when any asked him why, he would shake his head and refuse to answer.

Version Two

Long ago there lived a young king, who ruled his land through force that some called tyrannical, refusing to listen to any counsel from his elders. Once he made up his mind, there was no changing it, and his name was spoken with fear throughout the land.

One day there appeared at his court a maiden of about his own age, who had few connections and none of note. Despite this, her charm and fresh loveliness won her companions and even friends. She could read and write three languages, sing and play upon the lute, but hunting was her true love. She hunted better than any lady of the court, and most of the men as well. She watched with envy as the king and his friends flew their hawks, and spoke fondly of hawking at home, but shook her head to the offer of a loaned bird.

"For none," she said, "could match the hawk who waits for me at home."

Though she did nothing to catch his eye, the king began to look upon her with lust, and often found excuses to be in her company. She loved to read, and spent much time in the Royal Library, perusing books and scrolls or writing letters to her beloved family and friends. When she would finish one of these, she would gaze out the windows of the library towards her home, wondering when she would see it again. She had come to the court of her own will, it was true, but only because her family felt they needed to know what went on there. Once they knew enough, she could return home once more, so she sent her letters often, then gazed into the distance, thinking of the people to whom she wrote.

"What do you gaze at so often from these windows?" the king asked her one day.

"My home," she said truthfully. "I love it dearly."

"Yet you left it to come here," he said.

She half-closed her eyes to hide her tears. "A woman may do many things for love, Your Majesty," she said softly, to keep the king from seeing that she cried from homesickness.

To her dismay, the king believed this meant she was enamored of him, and spent more and more time in her company. She dared not send him away, and so it was that one afternoon he asked her, "Will you ride with me tomorrow?"

"Where shall we ride?" she asked.

"Anywhere you wish, and for as long as you wish," he said.

"Half a day outward and half a day back," said she, "or we shall not return to the palace in the same day."

The king was silent, and the maiden began to feel true fear. "My reputation, Your Majesty," she said diffidently, looking at him from the side of her eye. "It would be terribly damaged if we rode forth as you seem to suggest."

"Reputations are not everything, lady," he said. "But since you insist, half a day outward and half a day back it shall be."

Now the maiden feared for her honor, and it was with mingled relief and horror that she heard the gossip in the palace that the king wished to wed her. Relief came first – for surely he would not harm her if he meant to wed her? Horror came after – for marriages were sometimes celebrated after the man involved made sure that the woman would no longer protest...

"My ministers dislike my wishes," the king told her when he found her in the library that evening. "They say you may be a peasant trained to act as a lady and embarrass me, or a spy here to gather my secrets. One even claimed you were a devil come to steal my soul away. But I will hear none of their complaints. I will wed you whatever they may say, and to that end I ask you to take me to your family, that I may ask your father for your hand."

The maiden gathered her courage. "Your Majesty, I cannot," she said. "You would never wed me if you saw where it is that I come from. And I would not wed you even were I of birth and place equal to yours. I am promised to another."

"Promises can be broken," said the king, anger beginning to gather in his face.

"But it is no wish of mine that the promise be broken," said she. "For I do not love you, Your Majesty, and even were my betrothed dead this very minute, I would not wed with you."

The king grew truly angry at this. "We shall ride out to the end of the world together, until you show me where your family lies hid!" he thundered, and ordered his horse and a carriage for the maiden.

They traveled for two days, staying at an inn overnight. The maiden trembled in her bed, and felt for the gift her mother's sister had given to her before she left, but the king came not to her chamber.

On the afternoon of the second day, the king called for the coachman to stop. The maiden leaned from her window and looked about her in wonder and joy, then sprang lightly down from the coach. "What is this, O king?" she said teasingly. "You led me to believe you were taking me to my death, and yet you bring me to my family's home!"

The king frowned, for he did not understand. In truth, he had meant this quiet stretch of forest road to be the last sight the maiden's eyes would see, for the earth nearby was soft and easy to turn, and the coachman would not betray him.

"Come, and I will show you where my family lives," said the maiden. "Come with me, it is not far. Your horse and the coach can wait for your return."

The king scowled, but followed her. His scowl deepened at the hoot of the owl to which the maiden waved, and at the rustle of some leaves at which the maiden, laughing, tossed a handful of twigs. He glowered still more as the maiden stopped to greet her sisters. "Why does a deer stand so close by a wild cat?" he asked. "And why do they let you stroke them so?"

"A deer?" asked the maiden in confusion. "A cat?" Then she laughed as she recalled. "Look again, O king, and look harder. They are my sisters, come to see you."

The king looked, and to his astonishment, what he had thought were animals were revealed to be slender girls verging on womanhood, one dark and supple, one lithe with hair like flame. They curtsied to him gracefully and vanished into the underbrush.

"My people hide themselves well," said the maiden as she led him onward. "For there are those who call us demons or black sorcerers, and would strike us down for being what we cannot help. So we dwell within the wood, harming none and helping whom we can."

The king looked as if he would run if he could, but two steps more brought him into the main hall of the maiden's home. "Wolves," he breathed. "White and black, gray and brown, and greater than any I have ever seen..."

"No, Your Majesty, no," the maiden said urgently. "Look again, as you did with my sisters. Look beneath what you see at first. They will not harm you if you offer no harm. They are my family and my kin."

The king looked, and for a moment saw two young men, one fair and the other dark, smiling joyously at their sister as she came to embrace them – for a moment saw a man and woman in the prime of their lives, hand in hand and watching their children benevolently. For a moment he saw this, but then he saw once more the maiden kneeling among four great wolves, who fawned upon her as if she were one of them.

And then the maiden rose and held out her arm, and with a scream a hawk descended from above to land on her wrist as lightly as a feather, its talons closing about her flesh without bruising it in the least, and its red-feathered wings stirring her long brown hair gently.

"Here is my betrothed, O king," she said. "He would meet you, and speak with you, for, he says, you have looked with favor upon the same lady, and that makes you brothers in the spirit." And as the king watched, the hawk flew from the maiden's wrist and became a tall and well-favored knight, with hair as red as the hawk's wing feathers, who advanced towards the king, his hand outstretched in fellowship.

The king never grasped that hand. Instead, he turned and ran, back to the road and to his horse, but no horse stood there. Instead, a woman with stern eyes and a warrior's build looked upon him, frowning. "Go from here, if you will," she said. "Go, and never return, for the beauties of our land are not for those who fear them." And the wolves appeared behind him, five now instead of four, for another black one had appeared among them.

The king leapt into the coach and called on the coachman to start, and the coachman did so, rather wondering at his sovereign's tone, for all he had seen coming from the forest was a group of people – four gentlemen, two older and two younger, and a lady with them. But the king was the king, and entitled to his own ways, thought the coachman unconcernedly.

The king returned to his city. He married a lady of his own land and never spoke of the strange maiden again. Still, as the years went by, the king sometimes found himself gazing at the forest from the windows of his library, and even he could not understand why.

(A/N: Had this in my head for a while. Hope you liked! Please let me know, either way!)