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By and large, the humans and the magical beings pretended not to notice each other. Visitors to that part of the world were rare, and so when one evening when the fisherman saw the silhouette of a knight on horseback, he called to his wife to get ready to receive an guest. She prepared a tray with little glasses of spirit and a bowl of berries from the wood. By the time he reached it, the sky was already growing quite dark. The fisherman invited him to come inside.

Telling Tales

The knight sat in an armchair and put his leg up on a stool, for he had strained it. They could see that he was quite young, and good looking, if somewhat tired from his journey. He told them that his name was Sir Huldbrand, and that he had a castle that stood on the banks of the River Danube. While they were speaking, they heard a strange watery sound splashing against the window pain. The old man knotted his brow and looked troubled. We have a visitor. He had not expected to find anyone like her here.

She was fair and very beautiful. Her manner was quite insolent, but not without charm.

Suddenly her eyes flashed with temper. They could hear her running down the path. It was hard to tell if he was more astonished, or amused by her strange behaviour.

‘Of all fairy-tales, the most beautiful…’ Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine

Around fifteen years ago, I was returning from the market and making my way through the woods. As I was nearing home, I saw my wife running towards me. I knew something was up, because she never ventures into the woods normally.

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I knew right away that she could only mean our darling child, our little daughter. In fact, that very day she had just turned three years old, and I had a present for her in my sack.

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She had wondered out of the cottage, and all that was left of her was a blue cap floating on the water of the lake. She must have drowned. Perhaps a nymph pulled her under and took her for a sister in her watery kingdom. She was fair where our daughter was dark. She was Undine whom you have just seen, albeit briefly. Her hair and her clothes were wet. We assumed she had fallen in the lake. Of course we accepted the child as a gift from god. Although she has always been naughty, wilful, and strong-headed, we have always loved her like the daughter we lost.

The knight was clearly fascinated by the tale. Just then, the wind howled through the trees, and rain began to beat down on the roof of the cottage. The knight hobbled on his strained leg as fast as he could manage.

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He followed the path towards the haunted wood, as something told him that she had headed that way. He soon found that a stream was now gushing across the path. She was sheltered from the storm by the branches of a giant oak tree. The knight scrambled up the hill, and held out his hand to help her jump across onto the bank.

Later, as they dried out before the fire, the knight told Undine and her parents the strange story of how he came through the woods. I took part in the jousting.

Amongst the onlookers I saw a face that I liked. She was a maiden; dark, and beautiful. I rode up and asked her for her favour. She told me, "This sport is for boys. If you wish to win my favour, you must ride through the woods to the lake on the other side, and report back to me with news of whatever or whoever you find there.

I knew, of course, that the woods were supposed to be haunted, but I do not fear spectres or magical creatures. The next day I set out on my quest, and indeed I found a nest of goblins living in the trunk of a great tree. They were far more afraid of me than I was of their ugly green faces and pointed ears. I rode on. But then, towards night, I felt a chill on my back. I looked around and saw strange white figure running towards me.

Undine - English translation in English - Langenscheidt dictionary German-English

My horse took fright and reared. I tried to reign him in, but I fell from my saddle. That was how I hurt my leg. The strange figure had vanished. I felt unwell, and quite chilled to the bones, but I managed to gather my horse and ride on. Eventually I came out of the other side and saw the calm blue waters of the lake. That was when I knew I was near the end of my quest. I heard your kind voice offering me hospitality, and here I am. Do you find my story strange? He is a demon of the lake and the forest, and he was up to his usual tricks. I am glad you were not hurt more badly when you fell from your horse.

Now the time for stories was over, and they all found places to sleep in corners of the cottage. In the morning the storm was still raging, and the stream had grown more fierce. It was not safe to cross, and they were cut off from the way back to the city.

"Undine" English translation

For the next few days, the weather did not improve. Huldbrand and Undine spent much time together. She was less wilful now, and did no more than tease her knight gently. Her step parents could see that he was very taken with her. When eventually the weather was good enough to go out, they ventured for a walk into the edge of the woods. When they returned, the knight asked the fisherman permission to marry his step daughter, which of course he granted.

That evening, there was a knock at the door. The fisherman opened and saw that standing before him was a priest. His robes were wet. He explained that he had stumbled into the stream while crossing it. Undine insisted, as always, on having her way. She had a further surprise, for she revealed that in her little box of possessions she somehow had two gold rings that were ideal for the ceremony. That evening, when the priest was sufficiently dried out, they kneeled before him, exchanged their vows, and were married. That might sound like classic fairy tale ending, but the story has some way to go yet.

About a week later, Sir Huldbrand set out for his castle, taking his new wife and her step parents with him. The priest accompanied them too, for the evil things of the forest respected him, and would do the little party no harm, so long as the priest was with them. He is pleased that I am married to you for this was his plan all along. They walked through the forest without any untoward incidents, and on the other side hired to carriage to take his family to the castle in comfort. The knight installed his beautiful young wife and her family in his castle.

For a while, their happiness was perfect.

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But before long, in the long dark passages of the old castle, spectres began to appear. The servants were terrified, and even Sir Huldbrand found that strange, eerie sounds disturbed his sleep. One morning Undine ordered some men to take a large stone and cover over the fountain in the courtyard.