A man crosses a great plain and enters a dark forest. As he weaves through the trees and undergrowth, he repeatedly meets ghouls that attack him, and each time he defeats them or escapes. The forest presents many discomfiting dangers, so he makes his way rapidly to its far edge and comes to the foot of a mountain.
He starts to climb, and he feels relief from the perils he has faced. When out of danger, he lies down to sleep and dreams of an icy mountain cave and of warming himself by a fire of human bones. The smoke carries a repulsive odor, so he extinguishes the flames and spreads the ashes over the cavern floor.
Still in the dream, he leaves the cave and descends the mountain to a crystalline stream. He kneels at a pool to drink, and he espies in the water’s surface the reflection of a nymph looking over his shoulder. He jumps up and whirls around to find nothing but bushes and trees behind him. He awakens with a start.
He has heard of nymphs in stories told to him by his grandmother. The dream reminds him of them, and now he recognizes the surrounding terrain as similar to that inhabited by the Oreads of those childhood tales.
During his youth, he thinks often about capturing nymphs. After years of telling stories to him, his grandmother begins to embellish the tales and to endow the nymphs with wish-granting powers as well as remarkable storytelling abilities. According to her, a captured nymph might grant a wish or tell a story in exchange for her freedom.
She claims that nymphs’ stories are highly enchanting and that the receipt of one of them is accompanied by good fortune that far outweighs the value of a wish. Nevertheless, the foolish men of her tales never elect to hear stories, and not one’s wish works out as the wisher imagines.
The man passes over the mountain and descends to a stream that is similar to the one in his dream. He follows it, comes to a bridge, and crosses to the other side. As he steps onto the bank, he hears splashing and laughing nearby, and he crouches behind an outcrop to listen. The voices are female, and the nature of the terrain combined with his recollection of the dream lead him to believe that nymphs are swimming downstream.
He removes his boots, moves stealthily down the riverbank, and silently enters the water. The current is steady, and he floats with it until he comes to a bend and the voices become louder. Then he submerges and continues underwater.
The stream is murky, so he doesn’t see the nymph until he is upon her. She has no chance to escape. Under normal circumstances, capturing a fresh-water nymph in her own territory is impossible. Naiads are superlative swimmers—the slowest among them can effortlessly outswim the fastest human.
When he bumps into her, the man grabs the nymph around the waist with one arm and surfaces as she struggles to free herself. He turns onto his side and pulls himself through the water with his left arm while securing his catch with his right. With some effort, he makes it to shore and scrambles up the bank while his prize kicks and bites him and the nymphs who have fled pelt him with branches and rocks.
These nymphs are from a clan of Potameides, river nymphs whose object is moving water but whose tree-climbing skills are fairly developed as well. They cannot descend a tree trunk head first like a Dryad, but they scamper along branches and jump from limb to limb with surprising ease. Fearing the presence of more men in the vicinity, the frightened nymphs move through the treetops and reenter the water downstream.
The man finds himself alone at the river’s edge with his captive. He grabs her by the wrists and holds her away from him to see her better. She is redheaded with light freckles spread over her body and decorative blue dots that cross her forehead and extend down the sides of her face just past the lobes of her pointed ears. Her short dress is of white linen, and her fingers and toes are webbed, a distinguishing characteristic of Naiads.
The nymph’s azure eyes flash as she looks around frantically for some means of escape. Finding none, she struggles to free herself and finally stops as the man looks on. Holding her is no problem, for he is far stronger than she, but he must proceed with caution, because he knows that many a hapless man has lost his nymph after expending years of effort to capture her.
He carries her a short distance into the forest and sits down on a log while pinning her arms to her sides. After a few more outbursts of futile struggling, she gives up and starts to cry. Through sobs, she begs him to let her go and states that if he does so she will grant him a wish.
The man replies that he wants her to tell her best story, and once she does, he will release her. Unbeknownst to the man, his grandmother’s stories are partly wives’ tales and partly true. He has chosen correctly, though, because nymphs’ stories do indeed convey blessings on the hearers. Contrary to his childhood impression, nymphs have no power to grant wishes.
The nymph insists, however, and tempts him with examples of wishes granted by captured nymphs in the past. She cites instances wherein men have received vast kingdoms, untold wealth, and the women of their dreams. The man listens to her arguments and then states that he will hear her best tale. With that, he will set her free.
Defeated, the nymph agrees to tell the story as soon as he releases her. Once a nymph concludes a negotiation and its terms are clear, Olympian law binds her to her word, a rule to which his grandmother refers in her tales, so the man agrees.
The hour is late for starting the story, so the man binds the nymph’s hands and feet with rope, ties the ends around himself, and lies down beside her to sleep. He doesn’t bother to keep an eye out for the nymph’s friends, who are hiding in the trees some distance away. The captive nymph sees their flames flickering from time to time, and she is disappointed when none of them dares to approach.
Resigned to her fate, she falls asleep and dreams of nymphs who reveal their best stories and end up bereft of their essences. The worst thing that can happen to a nymph is to be forced to tell her most precious story to a non nymph. Some nymphs would rather die than do so, but when perpetual captivity is the alternative, most of them cough up their stories.
She awakens to the man’s whistling as he cooks breakfast over an open fire. After checking the lashing that binds her feet, he loosens the rope on her hands so she can eat. A human’s repast is quite unlike that of a nymph, though, and she shakes her head at the eggs, potatoes, and beans that he offers her. Instead, she sips dew that drips from the fronds of a fern at her side. She would have welcomed honey, pollen, nectar, ambrosia, or flower petals, but she refuses to ask the man for anything.
After breakfast, the man announces that he is ready to hear her story. He reminds her of her obligation to tell the entire tale once freed and then removes her bonds. She takes a seat on a rock near the fire and begins.
Instead of diving into the narrative, however, she stalls by describing some of the Naiads’ traditions and customs, supposedly so that the man will understand the implications of the events that take place in the story. He must know, for instance, that Naiads float up from the bottoms of their lakes, rivers, or seas in birth bubbles and begin their lives by stepping out fully grown.
At that point, their wings fall off, and they immediately possess some combination of lightning speed, remarkable swimming talent, the ability to squeeze through small openings, tree-climbing agility, the power to turn into floating flames, and unequaled storytelling flare.
The man listens with interest, but he is not fooled. As fascinating as this information may be, none of it comprises any part of the story, and he informs the nymph that she must proceed with no further delay. In response, she launches into her tale.
“Many millennia ago,” she begins, “an ocean nymph, an Oceanid, becomes the queen of her clan. Normally, nymph clans don’t have queens. Rather, small groups of ruling elders make important decisions, preserve traditions, and maintain control.
“The Oceanids’ situation is different, however, because their object is so large that their elders are forced to delegate authority to subgroups in different regions in order to maintain some semblance of order. The dissemination of information and instructions is unwieldy, but things work fairly well until conflicts erupt and a need for more direct governance arises.
“Nymph clans have altercations with other clans from time to time, but since the members are attached to their objects, the tussles are usually minor. Uniquely, though, the Oceanids’ and the Potameides’ territories overlap at the points where the rivers empty into the oceans, so the clans frequently skirmish in the silty waters that flow into the sea.
“When the Oceanids try to make combat decisions by committee, the actions taken are too slow to be effective, and at one point, the Potameides capture large areas of ocean around the mouths of their rivers, claiming most of that water to be the mud-laden stuff of their objects.
“This might not present a problem, since the ocean is large and the numbers of nymphs in the competing clans relatively small, but the Oceanids are proud, and out of principle, they vow to move en mass against the Potameides. Such a show of force requires concentrated effort under the command of a single nymph, and that is when they name their queen.
“Their first queen reins during the seventh millennium after the Olympic gods defeat the Titans. She lives more than nine centuries and is arguably the most impressive nymph the gods have ever created. She is certainly the most beautiful, talented, and steel-nerved nymph of her epoch. She has blue-black hair and violet eyes with tinges of scarlet in them, and the gods fashion her to be fearless. Oceanid storytellers allege that the gods design her to stop the Potameides who steadily encroach on the Oceanids’ turf.
“The queen is the most athletic nymph of the clan, and she can swim long distances underwater without surfacing for air. None of her contemporaries matches her physicality or her beauty, and she sparks pride and bravery in her troops, who aggress against the Potameides in frightening fashion.
“She gives orders from ice castles that float on enormous bergs near the poles, and she moves in secrecy from one to another in order to keep the Potameides guessing. Her generals win numerous battles following her instructions, and often she shows up to take command just as the two forces are about to engage. With her eyes blazing blue flame and a bloodcurdling war cry in her throat, her presence half-defeats the Potameides before the fight begins.
“She leads the Oceanids to victory after victory until all of the clan’s lost territory is recovered. From then on, she sets guards at the mouths of the rivers and organizes periodic attacks to make the Potameides constantly aware that her clan means business.
“She dies during one such incursion in the most unexpected fashion. As she leads a charge with her lance held high and riding an enormous orca, her death bubble surfaces directly in her path, and she hits it head on. The bubble absorbs her, rejects the orca, and immediately sinks into the river’s depths.
“The Potameides react quickly and dive after the bubble, intending to finish off their enemy while she is in a weakened state, but the Oceanids form a ring around the bubble as it descends, and the battle rages under the sea while the queen watches helplessly from inside her sinking chamber.
“As the bubble approaches the bottom, she becomes sleepy and lies down just as a large fissure opens in the rock below. The sphere disappears into the crevice, but neither the Oceanids nor the Potameides follow for fear of premature death or some worse fate.
“Fortunately, the queen has named her successor, and although the new monarch is not so striking or talented as the late queen, she has excellent leadership skills and is prepared to guide the clan into the next millennium.”
The captive nymph stops speaking. She has finished her story and completed her part of the bargain. The man blinks, and she is gone. He knows he will never see her again.
He spends the remainder of his life wading in marshes and streams and wandering through forests in search of nymphs. The tale of the Oceanid queen captivates him, and he even embarks on a trawler that traverses the northern seas, sighting nothing but whales and icebergs.
His mistake is in searching for another nymph. He has already captured a Naiad, and the story’s magical blessing is only forthcoming when the hearer recognizes that the quest is over.
He dies while pursuing the sounds of Oreads bathing and laughing in a watery cave. Overcome by a gas emitted by a mineral, he collapses face down in an underground pool as he crawls toward the entrance in search of fresh air.
The nymphs drag his body out of the water, cover it with salt scraped from the cave’s walls, and sing an ode that one of them composes about the man’s burning desire to catch a second nymph. The essence of the song is that stories about men who attempt to capture more than one nymph always have unhappy endings.
Thank you for reading The Nymph Queen ©, by Douglas R. Eikermann