by Anders Nygaard
Helge Kristensson sat in the darkness by the grindstones, with only the spluttering candle to keep the shadows of midnight at bay. The stones were at their fastest now, the flour, his flour, pouring down the funnel and into the sack. There was no sound but the steady grinding noise of the stones and the water hitting the millwheel. Helge was not at ease. He was a Christian man and refused to yield to the peasant's pagan beliefs. Why waste three handfuls of corn in the river because of fairy-tales? Even so, right now, he had a disquieting feeling of . . . being unwelcome, that had made him bolt the door and even roll the old topstone with the runes on it, which had been standing by the door for centuries, in front of it. He knew it was a stupid and childish thing to do, but he kept wishing he had brought less grain to the mill, so he could have finished while the sun was still up. But dammed up water, when released, would not wait for dawn . . .
Art by Sebastien Allard
Suddenly, the wheels stopped. The sudden absence of the sound, which had been going on all day, made him start and fall off his stool. He got up, and looked quickly around. Something jammed. A big branch in the water . . . A broken cogwheel . . . Did he hear a sound?
A wet, slow sound. The sound of something moving along the lafted wall of the tiny millhouse straddling a stream more than an hour from the nearest farm . . . The tallow candle gave a final dying pop and died. Helge stood in total darkness, not daring to move. Then someone . . . something . . . tried the door, slowly, carefully, like an old woman picking up a knitting needle. The old topstone scraped a few inches across the floor, then stopped. There was a draft from the crack in the door. It brought the smell of rotting leaves, pine needles, dirt and mud. A thin sliver of moonlight and a shadow moving, swiftly, like a bird. Helge started silently to pray the only prayer he knew by heart. The sound of the stream changed slightly. Fog was seeping in through the tiny crack. Then the sound of wood against wood, from a corner. One of the floorboards was moving.
Helge broke off in the middle of forgive us our sins, threw himself at the last grain sack and grabbed two handfuls of the stuff. He heard them rustle at the floor as he threw them into the corner. Then he took another two handfuls and another, and closed his eyes and clung to the bag of grain as if holding on to it could ensure him a safe place in heaven. After a while the wheels started creaking. He got up, hurried over and got the grindstones going. The rest of the night he sat in total darkness listening to the ever-changing sound of the stream. In the morning he was nearly sure he hadn't seen those big, green, glowing eyes staring reproachfully at him from the opening to the river . . .
There was no trace of the spilled grain.
A creature out of the older Norwegian legends, Nøkken is a shapeshifter, changing appearance with the seasons. In the spring and summer, he appears as a young man, sitting at the bank of a lake, playing his violin while the sun goes down. Anyone who hears the music of the water sprite must listen to him until sunset, and then follow him into the lake, much like the more well-known Pan in southern Europe. In the autumn and winter he changes (or ages?) into a slimy Gollum-like creature, with big glowing eyes, froglike limbs and hair that looks like a clump of twigs and grass. No matter what season, he hates intrusions into what he considers his territory. This might be a small forest pond, a stream, a mire, or any natural collection of fresh water, except large rivers. Nøkken always stays close to the springs. His usual way of dealing with intruders is to drown them, if he can make it look like an accident, or make them disappear mysteriously. Swimming is not recommended. Anyone trying to use the Millman's water must pay their respects to him in some way, or things will go badly for them. Usually this is just a small thing, like throwing a pebble or small coin in the water. Like most supernaturals in Scandinavian legend, he is extremely allergic to steel, and the best way of getting rid of him is throwing it over his head.
Filling In The DetailsWhat the stories do not say is anything about where Nøkken comes from. A GM who decides to use Nøkken in a roleplaying game must therefore first decide what this creature actually is. There are several possibilities:
The UndeadA person who drowned tragically, and refuses to go quietly. Also, he feels lonely, and decides to use his newfound powers to get some company. In this case, there might not just be one Millman, but a whole tribe of them, just waiting . . .
The DeityOnce, he was the god of good life, wine, happiness, abundance and fertility. When he failed to meet the peoples' expectations, or the change from hunter-gatherers to agriculture came, other, more powerful gods took his place, and now he is just a shade, hiding in the ponds near the forest springs that was the origin of his cult. Grown old, mean and ugly, he hates his former believers who abandoned him, and takes every opportunity to do mischief on them. So that they may not forget him completely, he takes offerings for leaving them in peace. On certain nights, though, in the right season, he gains his old powers, and roams the forests with his music . . .
The Cursed OneOnce, he did something really nasty, or stupid, which was frowned upon by higher powers. He might have denied a traveling wizard a drink of water, whereupon the wizard saw to it that he would have enough water for the rest of eternity. He might have cheated a widow of her heritage by throwing the runestone marking the field borders in a nearby lake. Now he has to go searching for the marker as a ghost, without a chance of ever retrieving it. Ghost stories and folklore are packed with examples of this sort of thing.
The ParasiteAn ancient aquatic race, the nøkkin (their plural name) has found its own very special evolutionary niche, as a parasite on superstitious communities of land-dwellers. Usually, they make do with fish and the gifts from their worshippers, but sometimes, they decide they want something more tasty . . .
VettenIn a GURPS Vikings campaign, Nøkken is definitely one of vettene, (p.95,. the word is spelled vaettir), except his domain is wilderness, springs and streams instead of farms and burial mounds.
The Water SpriteIn AD&D's Monstrous Manual there is a reference to the Nixie, a variant of the sprites. It seems the English version of Nøkken has been made a lot nicer (and better suited to children's books) over the years. I will try to describe the Scandinavian version, which is a lot older and has more dramatic potential than these little people with insect wings.
The Great UnknownThe GM could just decide the only available information is that of the legends, and let Nøkken be the strange shadow in the fog, the two eerie, moving glows just below the surface of the midnight lake, and the wet, whispering voice in the darkness.
The UndeadST 15 Move/Dodge: 12/8 swimming 5/5 land
DX 8 PD/DR: 0
IQ 8-15 Damage: none
Nøkken has never been known to attack except by drowning. Any kind of violent resistance will make him retreat immediately. He won't get caught in a corner. Could have the ability to reanimate his victims into something like himself (or into zombie-like things).
The DeityST 20 Move/Dodge: Can achieve any speed at will.
DX 20 PD/DR: 0
IQ 16 Damage: Spells
The faded god version will have access to most of the less spectacular water elemental spells and mind affecting spells. Illusions and some limited shapeshifting will also be appropriate.
The Cursed OneMuch like the undead, except he may have some of the weaker of the above spells, more DX and less strength.
The ParasiteST 10 Move/Dodge: 12/12 in water 3/6 land
DX 13 (-3 on land) PD/DR: 0
IQ 10 Damage: by strength
This would be an amphibious creature, with a life cycle involving radical seasonal changes. It could also be a hybrid of human and something else. This race is not recommended for PCs, as they would be unable to travel very far from their home. Much of the point in using Nøkken is the deep mystery surrounding him. He is very suited for the role elves used to have, before they became far too depressingly mundane, at least to long-time fantasy players like me.
VettenVettene are nature spirits, and difficult to define by stats. Spells as the divine version, which could be combined with the spells of others of its kind (if there are more than one) to make the more spectacular effects, like Shape Water.
The Great UnknownHere the GM must ensure that Nøkken is never encountered in a situation where stats will be necessary, or he will have to decide on one of the other solutions.
Search PartySomeone important wandered into the woods and disappeared. Guess who's got to find him? The big question here is what Nøkken actually does to his victims. Are they kept as slaves with a water breathing spell, are they turned into his undead minions, or something even stranger?
Consulting the SpiritsIf Nøkken is one of the vettene, or something like them, he might be an interesting source of information to mages and the like. He must be extremely ancient, and living in exactly the same place for thousands of years should have given him a pretty high score in Area Knowledge. Finding him and getting to speak to him is, of course, extremely difficult. It might require an ancient, long lost summoning spell, involving rare and weird ingredients, having to be cast at a specific place at exactly the right time. Or the PCs may have to fumble through dense, dark and dangerous wilderness searching for some long- lost shrine, while Nøkken does his best to dissuade the PCs with his spells. (The Scandinavian wilderness does not feature very many dangerous animals, except the viper, but does offer a lot in sudden mires, unpassable heaps of giant boulders, steep cliffs you don't see until you step over the edge and annoying little paths that leads nowhere. Yes, I just came home from two days of hiking and have had enough of Nature for a while . . .)
Freeing the CursedA mage might suddenly hear a voice from the sinister dark lake he is walking past, pleading for help, claiming it is a man, cursed to stay in the lake for eternity. None of his companions hear the voice, though, but when they get to the tiny village nearby, they nevertheless make a few discreet inquiries . . .
The Cult of the Water DemonThis one is especially suited to a Vikings campaign, as the introduction of Christianity into Norse society caused some interesting conflicts. The locals had nothing against worshiping White Christ, but couldn't get the hang of the concept of not worshiping anyone else. For several years, all the old æsene, vanene, alvene and vettene was worshiped along with several local variants of Christianity. The church did, of course, not approve of this, and PCs on a mission to fight heresy and paganism wherever they found it, will sooner or later hear of the Millman, and set out to prove to the thick-headed peasants that he does not exist, or is an abomination of the devil . . .
Article publication date: August 27, 1999
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