Before the gates of Zhandivar
A beggar stood with staff in hand
His rags were patched and patched again
And yet they fit his frame
As though they were the robes of Kings
As men do wear their favored face
Before the world for all to see
So Zhandivar did place its panoply
Afore the way that led within,
The fabled gates of Zhandivar.
The pillar posts were chased with runes
That told the might of Zhandivar.
The stones that flagged the royal way
Were worn by caravans that brought
To Zhandivar their merchant wealth.
The guards that kept the royal gate
Were dressed in shining uniforms
That military men do wear
In times of peace to let the world
Know that they are men of war.
The guard that held the watch that day
Said “Hold” and asked what cause
The beggar had to pass within.
The guard was bored;
He’d seen his thousandth face.
The beggar man, no beggar man was he,
Replied: He was a messenger who bore
Some messages that must be heard within.
The guard cared not if this were true.
The answer fit; he let him pass.
The way within was fair;
The Cherry blossoms bloomed
On trees that lined the avenue.
The scent of flowers filled the air,
The scented air of Zhandivar.
The beggar man, no beggar man was he,
Made his way amidst the throng
Of people rushing to and fro,
Each intent upon some matter of their own
Until he came unto his chosen square.
Staff in hand, he mounted on a step
And spoke unto the teeming crowd
Which listened not, for such as he
Were common in that place
Where preachers preached with wild words.
Some few did stop and listen for a bit.
A dog, a most ill-favoured hound,
Did stop and sniff about his feet
And, satisfied, did wander on
In hopes of finding food to eat.
And yet, within that busy crowd
Were ears that listened to his words.
For king and priest must know the
Tenor of the mob. Their safety lies
In knowing what the people think.
An agent scribbled notes
That summarized the words
The stranger on the steps
Spoke unto the passing crowd,
His cryptic words of eerie doom.
What words were said mattered not.
The agent’s duty was to note what style
Of men were there and what they said.
The weighing of those words
He left to other heads.
Then evening fell as evening always does.
Unmarked, the stranger left his step
And vanished with the Sun. And where
He spent the night no one knew.
And no one cared.
The royal sleep was troubled,
The royal dreams were strange.
And in the morn he called his seers
To tell of dreams in which the fatted kine
Were eaten live by dragons from the sea.
The royal seers were puzzled,
The royal seers were lost.
They called upon the priests
To call upon the gods to ask
What message lie within the royal dreams.
They read the stars in all their charts
And spilled the guts of chickens
Over flames of burning incense
And danced to chants to no avail.
The royal dreams remained unread.
Another day, and in the East another Sun
And with the dawn the stranger came
To speak anew upon his chosen step
Some cryptic words of eerie doom,
Some words the agent scribbled in his book.
And so it went for a little while
Some days of cryptic speech,
Some nights of troubled dreams
Until the office of intelligence
Placed dream and word within a single box.
No agents now to scribble words
Some soldiers now in polished brass
To greet the stranger in the dawn
This stranger with his eerie words
Who spoke unheard upon the step.
The beggar came, no beggar man was he,
The waiting troops surrounded him,
Polite but firm, invited him
To speak with King and Seer
And curious inquisitors.
Before the throne the stranger stood
All wrapped in royal rags he spoke
His piece, his message on the step,
The doom of Zhandivar, by deep and beast,
By sack and ruin, and fire in the Earth.
“And is there no respite,
No saving grace from doom?”
The King did ask, as well he should.
The omen of disease doth name a cure
Which often masks a subtler ill.
The stranger spoke, a messenger was he,
And named a quest, a cure
For that which must not be.
“Seek the wall that girds the world;
It lies beyond the utter West.”
“Upon that wall there is a plaque.
Upon that plaque there are some words,
Which, when read in time and spoken true,
Will ease the bane of Zhandivar.
Make haste. Too late will seal the doom.”
A babble rose amidst the seers.
All dismayed, an anger and a fear
Spread through the listening crowd.
The King rose up in wrath and said,
“And who are you to name this doom?”
The stranger said,
“I am the death of he who never lived.”
And struck his staff upon the floor
And vanished in a cloud of smoke.
Within the crypts a groan was heard.
The tree that reaches in the sky
Has roots that in the darkness feed
Unseen, beneath the Earth they feed,
And having fed, they feed the tree.
And so it was with Zhandivar.
The messenger was gone,
His message had arrived.
The city lords and royalty
Did call upon the wise
To read anew this most unseemly news.
So once again the priests did call
Upon the gods to answer true
And once again the seers did spill
The guts of chickens on the floor
And danced to chants as incense burned.
There was no quandry now; the seers
And priests agreed. The chickens
And the gods agreed. They said,
“This doom is real; the answer’s clear;
Take up this quest into the utter West.”
No little thing this quest;
The wall that girds the world
Lies a thousand leagues and more
Through lands unknown to such
As they who dwelt in Zhandivar.
This was a quest that must not fail
Yet who should quest, no one knew:
Heroes bold or crafty men,
Men of war or men of peace,
Who should quest from Zhandivar?
The royal council met
And pondered long
And put together
A company of men of many sorts
As might be needed on this quest.
Ten thousand strong they started out,
A squad of scholars of every sort
And cavalry and infantry.
The royal color guard was there
And Prince Caractacus to represent the throne.
With banners high they started out
This mighty band of heroes,
Their heads held high
As they marched into the West
And women waved as they went by.
It didn’t last; it never does.
The miles make for weary feet.
The dirt and dust besmirch
The pretty uniforms
That counterfeit heroes wear.
If pretty didn’t last, purpose did.
Ten thousand strong they made
Their way from Zhandivar,
They needs must reach the utter West
No matter what the peril of their quest.
Some weeks and more they left behind
The lands well known to Zhandivar
And came to other lands,
The lands of kings who were alarmed
To see the passage of their host.
Sweet words they gave to other kings,
Sweet words to lay alarm
And thus did win their passage
And hastened on their way
Until they came to borders closed.
Fair and green was Alderman.
Crystal springs fed the streams
That wandered midst
Enchanted vales and verdant hills
A jealous king was master there.
Go away! No passage here!
“My land is not for strangers such
As you,” said the king of Alderman.
The quest was not abandoned so;
War was made to win the way.
The streams once clear ran red with blood
The vales once green were trampled bare
The king once proud lay in the dust
His eyeless skull bore witness to
This desperate quest from Zhandivar.
Ten thousand strong they’d started out.
Now heroes lay amidst the dust
In company with a foreign king.
Their numbers now reduced by war,
On they went, this host from Zhandivar.
No further king would bar their way
Grim rumor won their passage now.
Hard faced kings hurried them
Through kingdoms closed
To bloody hands from Zhandivar.
On they pressed until they came
To a land where kings would never rule
No land of green, a land of Sun
That burned upon the restless dunes
The desert of the West were a sterner test.
Under the Sun they died like flies,
Seer and hero both.
Cracked lips, parched throats,
Would never see the utter West.
Ten thousand in, a thousand out.
Beyond the desert death they found
A Western land of green
Where thirsty men could drink their fill
A land unknown to Zhandivar.
A Western land but not the utter West;
Before them lay some mountains.
Not little hills – these pierced the sky
And crowned themselves with ice –
Another place for men to die.
The beasts that kill and robbers raids
Took numbers as they climbed
Until they left behind
To perish in the cold.
Ten thousand strong they started out,
One hundred skeletons stumbled down
The Western slopes,
One hundred skeletons remained
To carry on the quest.
These Western lands were strange
But kind; and hardy men renewed
Their strength; but not so kind,
Fraught with danger to the stranger.
Dragonfire took a dozen of the rest.
No army now to win their way
By force of arms.
No wealth was left to buy
Their way. The questers had
To beg their way.
Beggars now, no beggar men were they,
But men who did what men must do
When what they seek is more than life.
The quest was all.
A dozen more were hung as thieves.
They traveled through the lands
That lay before the utter West.
One by one the questers fell
Until a dozen of their band was left
And still they kept upon the quest.
And so they came to the end of lands
Where people lived. Before them lay
The plain that marked the utter West.
Afore that plain there stood a gate.
Afore that gate there stood a beast.
A patchwork beast, a bit of this and that,
Stood guard and would not let them pass.
No force of arms, no clever ruse,
Could ever get them past.
And then the beast began to speak.
The rumble of its roar
Was soft as summer’s breeze
And this is what it said,
“Tell me, men of Zhandivar,
Lives yet, he who never lived?”
They stood perplexed, the men of Zhandivar,
Knowing not whereof the beast did speak.
Then the captain of the color guard
Stood forth and said,
“We do not know. We never knew.”
“Tis passing well and passing poor,”
The patchwork beast replied,
“Pass on into the utter West.
Travel on until you reach
The wall that girds the world.”
The captain of the color guard
Raised a tattered flag that yet remained
Of all treasure and all the wealth
Left behind upon their quest.
Quietly, they passed into the utter West.
Upon that plain no blade of grass
Did grow. No breeze did stir
The air. Within a dream
They walked into the shadow cast
By the wall that girds the world.
They walked a league or more,
How far they never knew,
To reach the plaque upon the wall
In shining brass upon the wall.
They gathered round and read.
IS NO MORE
No word was said upon that plain.
Around they turned and back they went
Across the plain and past the beast.
Never looking back, they left behind
The wall that girds the world.
Deathless now, the band retraced
The path they took from Zhandivar
Mountains, deserts, kingdoms all,
They paid no heed. Their only thought –
Return to Zhandivar.
In the North the wolves do howl
In the South the tigers growl
They never hunt the passing band
That forever seeks and never finds
See Reflections on Zhandivar for commentary.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter
This page was last updated June 2, 1998.