Right behind Uedem, on the way to Xanten, there is a hill named Gochfortsberg. Earlier the hill had an arrow shaped front that towered over the country, but that part had broken in ages ago. Some mysterious ravines go through the mountain slopes and in the bushes along the hillsides many birds are nesting. It is told that once upon a time a chieftain had his castle on the hill and that he had been buried up there with all his servants. But nothing can be seen.
Our story happens a century or two ago, I can’t get more precise. Life wasn’t too advanced and whoever wanted to visit the neighbor town had to go by horse or on his own feet.
So it did happen that the blacksmith of Kervenheim wanted to go home on this gray foggy day in September. He had had an important well-paid job in Uedem, but now it was late and he wanted to get home. Dawn had set in already, but he was a big and strong man, and the darkness couldn’t frighten him.
His way went across Gochfortzberg. His lantern’s lights were dancing in the ravines and threw weird shadows an the ground, because there was quite some wind and the tree branches were bowing to the wind. Far away he heard a hare’s cry. Probably an owl had caught her.
Suddenly he heard s a swoosh and a swarm of black birds rose and surrounded him,
Startled the blacksmith jumped into the bushes and ducked between the brambles. The birds circles around for a while and then rose higher an higher until they became invisible between the fog and early darkness.
Their croaking kept on ringing in the black smith’s ears. While he tried to get rid of the thorns he say something shiny between the brambles, something he had never seen there before. He held his lantern higher and -yes, he hadn’t misjudged. Under all these twines a door was hidden, and not just any door: It was decorated with heavy iron dress plates, very artfully done, even if they seemed corroded in many places.
The smith was impressed: Some colleague had done a great job with this door. But why, he asked himself. Curiously he shoved some more blackberry twines away and soon he found the door knob.
Carefully he pulled the knob. He was half afraid the rusty knob might come off. But the door opened without a sound and there was a dark tunnel behind her.
Our smith wasn’t Irish: He’d never heard those stories about dangerous fairy hills, so he just allowed his curiosity to lead on and walked along the tunnel. After a few passes he saw a light and soon the tunnel opened into into a chamber. The whole room was shimmering golden, with good reason: The floor was covered with the finest carpeting. Coins, jewels and golden cups were stacked in cupboards along the walls. But most impressive was the golden throne standing in the middle of the room.
The blacksmith was quite surprised when he saw that the room wasn’t lifeless. A man was sitting on the throne, a very old man sporting a long white beard. And next to the throne there was another man in a servant’s uniform that might have been modern ages ago. Both seemed to sleep, but when smith came closer, the man on the throne stirred and opened his eyes. His facial features became smoother and all of a sudden he seemed far younger than before. He straigthened upand now the smith saw that he wore a kind of tiara decorated with jewels. He stopped, but the man had already seen him and signaled him to come before the throne.
„How long did I sleep?“ he asked with a booming voice. „I, I don’t know, sir.“ the smith stuttered. „How did you get here?“ „Through the door. There was a door under the brambles. I swear that door hasn’t been there before, but suddenly I saw something shimmer and – „
„It’s alright.“, the man nodded. „The door can’t be seen by everyone. I take it that you know about iron magic?“ „I have no idea of magic!“, the smith replied, down to the earth man from the Lower Rhine that he was, „but I am a smith. I know a lot about iron.“
„So be it.“, the other man agreed. „Tell me: Are there still birds circling the hill?“
The smith thought of the swarm that had surrounded him just then. „You might say that.“
His dialog partner sighed deeply and said: „So I have to sleep a bit longer. My time hasn’t come yet.“
The smith stopped short at this comment, and thousand questions rushed his head, but the old man already closed his eyes again.
„My servant will show you the way out. Farewell, my good smith!“
The servant bowed slightly, took the smith’s lantern and hurried away. At the upper end of the tunnel he returned the lantern and presented him a golden coin with a strange embossment. „Take this as a sign of our gratitude.“
This whole thing had been a little too much even for our tough smith, and so he hurried home to his smithy in Kervenheim. By now it was pitch black outside and raining hard.
At home everybody was sleeping already. So he crawled under the blankets and slept as well. Tomorrow he would tell his wife everything.
But when the morning came and the smith reached for the golden coin in his pocket, it was gone. He searched all his pockets and even went back the whole way to Gochfortzberg, but the door was gone, too. Without any proof his story seemed to be far to adventurous and far-fetched, that years went by until he finally told somebody about it. The only thing he got from this adventure were some gray hairs.
The door stayed lost, and nobody has seen the sleeping chieftain and his servant ever since. And this is how it will remain until the birds stop circling the hill.
There are quite a few stories about Gochfortzberg. One of them is this one, clearly a local variation of the Kyffhäuser myth. I heard about it during an presentation of archeological information and tried to shape those bits into a story. In some variations of this myth the sleeper under the mountain is a bringer of peace, in other he will return on doomsday. As a matter of fact traces of settmlements have been found on the hill that go back to the iron age. Some of them were of Roman origin as well and another interpretation of the origins of the ravines of Gochfortzberg says that the Romans tried to create a shortcut from Xanten to Uedem. Still the story about the sleeping chieftain is one of my favorites and it goes well along with all those other sleeper-stories. The importance of the birds related to the end of the world as we know it is know from the London Tower, too.
Why is this story so interesting for me? Because the hill is quite close to my home. Just a few kilometers away.