Harb Zar - WORLDE ARCANE FICTION BY TÖFF COVER ART BY CTHULON
Then he chained me up in his wagon again, that fat stinking Orc,
in the same wagon he chained me into when he first kidnapped me,
and I couldn’t even remember how many days ago because he beat
me so brutally at first, with the other girls in his rape‑room, and
then days and nights passed in a blur, so I guessed about a week had
gone by—I couldn’t know for sure—but however long it had been,
I’d already learned not to dare raise a hand against him, or kick or
bite, even though my heart and soul boiled with absolute rage, but
just not enough to overcome the fear he had put in me.
He moved away for a moment, back into his fenced foothill
compound of huts and shacks and fields and sties, and I glared after
him, the obese brown‑skinned bastard Orc, with hair like crooked
gray wire, and a boarish snout. He called himself Captain Hozz.
The sun was sinking then—a cool early evening, early summer,
fresh air from the far western Green Forest carrying away the stink
from the compound, a stink that saturated my skin and my hair and
the rag that he let me keep for clothing. I knelt in the wagon, aching
down to my bones, but just content to breathe open air. I didn’t have
to move then, didn’t have to do anything but let the clean breeze
break across my face and my closed eyes. A slave learns to appreciate
the smallest blessings. I wondered if I could bear losing even this
brief moment, this gift of nothing but the wind.
He returned, dragging another girl by a similar chain. Into the
wagon he hurled her: a pale plump girl, short‑haired, a bit younger
than me, not as pretty, just as scared. Unlike most of his slaves, she
had no cuts or bruises that I could see—but, instead of a scrap of
fabric like I wore, she was mostly covered in linen.
When the Orc trudged away again, she whispered to me,
“Where’s he taking us?”
“I don’t know.”
“My name’s Ess. I never saw you before. Where do you work?”
Hozz had never made me do any physical labor. All I could say
was, “He keeps me in the east hut.”
“Oh, the harem?”
I bit my lip. “We don’t call it that.”
“So what’s your name?”
I said, “Rala.”
Hozz then returned again, carrying two heavy canvas sacks, and
beside him came a scrawny, loinclothed, blank‑faced man dragging
two more sacks. They heaved their burdens into the wagon by me
and Ess: the bags’ bulky contents clicked and rattled. Then the Uman
moved to the front of the wagon and took up a pullbar. Hozz climbed
to the driver‑bench, and with a heavy oak stick he struck the man
across the head. Suppressing a stagger, and throwing his weight
against the pullbar, the man strained into his labor, and the wagon
Along a track we rode, away from the compound, moving east
through the forest, through the rolling wooded hills that bordered
the Okajavo waste to the north, near Bigobo. The sky darkened
to indigo, and the shadows between the trees thickened. I began
to make out stars overhead, and the moon in her third quarter.
Whenever the wagon slowed, Hozz cracked his stick across the
wagon‑puller’s shoulder or back, and our speed increased for a
Ess whispered, “I’m glad I don’t have the wagon‑pulling job.”
“What job do you do, then?” I said, thinking that hers couldn’t
be as awful as mine.
Ess pursed her chubby lips and admitted, “He just keeps me
chained in the stable, and I don’t do anything.” I didn’t like to
wonder why Hozz would do that—but he had heard us whispering
and he turned and batted Ess in the head with his driver‑stick, and
we both said nothing after that.
We squatted in the jostling wagon with our legs bunched under
us, our weight balanced on the balls of our feet. We peered at the
trees to either side; we peeked up and down the narrow road into the
darkness. Surely Ess knew what I was thinking; surely she shared
the hope of an opportunity. But we had no way of breaking loose the
bolts that held our chains to the wagonframe.
The trees grew sparser, and the moonlight revealed our track
running across a wide meadow on a low plateau. To the right,
southward by several clear miles, down the hills, I saw the Black City,
the Orcish capitol called Churt: in its midst stood a wild, angular
castle of dark stone, and fires flickered along the crooked city walls.
And, all across the plain, the huts, stone cottages, and ragged shacks
of Churt’s outvillages sprawled in every direction. A gray haze hung
over the city, and I felt my stomach twist.
A mile east from the gates, a digging crew—working even
at night, by torchlight—toiled up and down a long, thin trench
stretching away eastward to plunge into wooded darkness. Hozz
seemed to take particular interest in the trench diggers, but the
wagon kept moving eastward.
Hours passed. The moon wandered slowly through the sky, just
past the zenith. We bore to the right and rolled down into flatlands.
A stream gurgled here, and we bridged it; then we plodded into
thick woods of spruce and oak. The further we penetrated the forest,
bumping along in the rickety wagon, the darker our path became.
Then without warning we rolled into a wide bare‑dirt clearing,
ringed all around with tight‑packed trees. Pale blue moonlight seeped
down from the sky, and on the north side a golden campfire blazed.
Smack in the middle of the dry field stood seven more Orcs, near a
twenty‑foot‑wide ring of fist‑sized stones. Under trees on the far side,
I saw two more wagons like Hozz’s.
Everywhere, in piles around the ring and scattered throughout
the clearing, lay a hundred Uman skulls.
The largest of the Orcs, brown‑skinned and warty like our
master, and with a thick black leather vest and wild orange hair,
stood and hollered, “Arrr, it’s the Hozz! Ye kept us waitin’, ye
bloodsucker. I claim a penalty! Har har.”
Hozz bellowed back, “Choke on yer penalty!” and with another
crack of his driver‑stick he made the wagon‑puller stumble to a halt.
He leaned back and unlocked Ess and me from our chains, and said,
“Bring the sacks.” Without a further glance at us, he hopped down
from the wagon and stomped toward the ring.
Ess and I glanced around at the surrounding trees, then at each
other. But instead of determination in her face, I saw only fear. She
was too fat to outrun Hozz; and with half a dozen Orcs so near, I was
too afraid to try to escape alone, in darkness, in their forest. One of
them would catch me, for sure—they move fast. So we struggled to
unload the four heavy sacks while the Orcs jabbered around their ring.
“Ye bloody red savage, old Gorr!” grumbled Hozz. “Ye had best
brung good stuff this time! Who are these other boys?”
The orange‑haired Orc pointed at the others, and said, “The one
in the blue hat is Wondo from Churt, who will gamble tonight against
us! Har har har. And the others will just watch.”
I noticed then that except for Hozz and Gorr, every other Orc was
short and withered, gray‑skinned, and dressed with more apparent
style than I thought Orcs could aspire to—but then, I only knew
Hozz the slaver. These others bunched quietly at the southeast side
of the ring. Wondo in the blue hat wore a matching blue jacket with
tan sleeves, a mockery of nobility on such a grotesque creature. He
smiled, revealing small fangs quite unlike Hozz’s tusks.
“An honor to meet you at last, Captain Hozz! Your canal fascinates me!” and
those behind him burst into a rattle of comments:
~“Three grek say Hozz refuses investors.”
~“Five grek say he demands a kickback!”
~“I take half that five, and two more say Wondo avoids paying
the kickback himself.”
~“At what terms? Specify a time!”
Hozz thrust his jaw forward and glared at the crowd behind
Wondo. “What sorta trick is this! I come for Harb Zar! Who are these
skinny midget worms? Thieves, I guess!”
Wondo stood and proclaimed, “I take offense! But as I myself
also wish to play at Harb Zar tonight, I will delay satisfaction. At some
future time, my champion will slay you.”
“What!” bellowed Hozz. “Ah hahah, is that a threat? I’ll squash
ye with one boot!”
Wondo blinked, an odd flicker of gray warty eyelids under the
narrow brim of his hat. “I make no threat! I only note a contract to
be executed later. It must not interfere with our game.”
Hozz and Gorr looked at each other. Gorr ran a thick hand
through his orange mane and said, “I dunno,” and Hozz grumbled
to Wondo, “Yer a disgrace to call yerself an Orc. Can ye play at
Wondo bowed—an unusual act for any Orc. “I am somewhat
accomplished, under traditional rules, and in fact my comrades have
come to observe and validate the proceedings.” Another rustle of
comments ran through the group of skinny gray Orcs behind Wondo:
~“Three grek each say Hozz and Gorr don’t know the rules.”
~“I lay one grek for each infraction by Hozz only, and
two for every threat of violence.”
Hozz rubbed his fat chin. “I don’ trust these city snakes!”
“Do they scare ye, Hozz! Har har!” cried Gorr with an accusatory
finger jabbed forward. “Afraid ye’ll lose all yer money, ye coward.”
Hozz declared with windmilling arms, “Pah! I’ll win everything
here! What did ye brung?”
Ess and I had dragged the four heavy sacks one by one to the
edge of the ring. Gorr, Hozz, and Wondo had each taken station
equally spaced around the perimeter: Gorr north, with the campfire
behind him; Wondo southeast on the far side; and then Hozz
southwest with our wagon in back, where the wagon‑puller sat in the
dirt in a morose daze, wheezing.
The Orcs proceeded to dump the contents of their sacks. First
came money, more brass and silver than I had ever seen, and gold
too, coins of all sizes, some with holes in the middle, some square
and even a few triangles. Ess and I stared in wonder. Then they
dumped out sacks containing various treasures such as exquisite
swords and daggers, jeweled flagons, fine‑crafted oil lamps, shining
temple artifacts, woodwork and metalwork objects that I couldn’t
even recognize. All this bounty must have come from raids into
Uman lands—and though I had been only a peasant with nearly no
possessions before I became a slave, I felt robbed.
“We drew lots before, and ye lost,” declared Gorr. “Wondo plays first!”
“What—are ye cheatin’ already!” countered Hozz, without effect.
But Wondo was already arranging a stack of things just inside
his part of the stone circle. “A fine golden censer!” he piped in a
reedy voice, his thin gray hands placing his treasure in the ring.
“You will see Skyldish runes around the base, if you know reading.”
Low chuckles sounded from the Orc‑group behind him, but Wondo
continued, “I value this object at ten Krowne!” and so, beside the
censer, he placed several coins ... and one of the many skulls from
nearby. “Zar!” he declared officiously.
Gorr and Hozz squinted at the censer, squinted at each other, and
squinted at Wondo.
Gorr growled, “It’s to ye, Hozzie, ye ugly fat dog.”
Hozz bared his teeth, then from his own pile he took an object
and set it inside the ring. “This here’s a Dwarf warhammer! I reckon
it at ten Krowne also!” and he set that amount in coin next to the
hammer. He turned to me and ordered, in a very low voice so the
other Orcs couldn’t hear, “Gimme a white skull. White paint inside.”
More scared to disobey than to touch the bones of other Umans,
I turned to a pile of skulls. Inside the first one I lifted, I saw a
splash of black paint. I took another and found white paint, and
I handed it to Hozz. He slammed it down on the dirt next to the
warhammer—teeth‑down, cranium‑up, so the paint inside was not
visible to anyone, just as Wondo’s skull had been placed—and he
Wondo’s group began to chatter again:
~“Ten Krowne for a hammer, a Bragger’s bet!”
~“No, it’s a nice hammer. Three grek say he’s done it on a Harb Zar to fool Wondo.”
~“I’ll take a grek of that!”
~“These ruffies don’t know what a censer is, but you can already smell Hozz wants it.”
Gorr shouted, “It’s to me now! Ye worthless pips han’t put in
anythin’ I want yet. Here, I’ll Zar in somethin’ to make it interestin’!”
From his stack of objects he drew forth a thin one‑handed dueling
sword, its ornate pommel and handguard glinting silver‑white in
the moonlight, and its blade almost glowing along a shallow, elegant
curve. “Elfie sword! By blood an’ spit, it’s worth twenty Krowne!”
and he tossed that much coin next to the sword in the ring. He dug
among his pile of skulls, looking inside each, and at last he set one
next to the sword with a cry of, “Zar!”
Wondo’s group began chattering again, taking much interest
in the coincidence of Gorr’s sword’s value matching that of the
warhammer and censer combined. Wondo waved his hand
dismissively. “I own four of those already, nicer ones I think. Here,
regard this next wager that I place. Too dainty for you country‑Orcs,
I have no doubts, but of surpassing charm; and if you win it, you
will find buyers in Churt at perhaps twice the value I place upon it
now, which is twenty‑one Krowne. Behold! The First‑Winter Tiara of
Princess Ellinia!” From a wrapping of pink silk, Wondo produced a
twist of silver and copper wire, and I thought to make out the sparkle
of gems. The tiara, plus several coins, plus a carefully selected
skull—he placed it all inside the game ring, and cried, “Zar!”
“Wassat tiara, what is that,” grumbled Hozz. “Not heavy enough
for no twenty‑one Krowne! Pah, I see ye tryin’ to cheat Gorr outta his
sword, I think. Heheheh. Well ye won’t do it! I call in the tiara!”
While Wondo and his group chuckled, Hozz rummaged in his
pile of treasure and found a filigreed drinking horn with an iron
tip and a thong of leather to hang it by. He counted out eleven
Krowne and tossed them into the ring, along with the horn. “Ekk
Zar!” he declared. Then he lifted the skull next to the warhammer
and showed its inside paint to Gorr and Wondo. “White! So, my
warhammer’s ten Krowne, plus eleven for the horn now, is the
twenty‑one for the tiara! Show that token!” he hollered to Wondo.
“This is violation,” stated Wondo judiciously. “You cannot place
and challenge, except by Zerk”—the group behind him yammered
in agreement—“and even then, only to challenge all Zars, not just a
Hozz clenched his fists, left and right. “What! I ain’t never heard
this, and I done laid the Zar and called
in the tiara!”
Wondo frowned and whispered with his group. Then he declared, “The
official rule is suspended for this turn. After this, now that you have heard
the accepted manner of play, both of you must abide by the official Churter
version of the rules.”
Hozz scratched his short gray hair, and he looked to Gorr who
just mumbled, “I guess.”
Hozz nodded and acquiesced. “Good enough. Show the token!”
Wondo stepped carefully into the ring, lifted the skull next to
the tiara, and showed its black‑painted inside surface to Gorr and
“Harb Zar!” he sang joyfully. “Captain Hozz, surrender your
warhammer and drinking horn, and your twenty‑one Krowne!”
Hozz stomped from one foot to the other, clenching and
unclenching his fists. To his left along the ring, Gorr sat chortling
and guffawing without restraint. “Them city lizards got ye good,
Hozzie!” he choked. “Har har har!”
“Pah! Take it then!” snarled Hozz in a foul temper.
Wondo strolled through the ring and looped the drinking horn
over his shoulder, and with difficulty he lifted the warhammer and
clutched it to his chest. But he did not return to his side of the ring
yet, nor did he touch Hozz’s coins. Instead he said evenly, “I came
here tonight not just to play at Harb Zar, Captain Hozz. In fact, as
I said before, I have heard of your canal and I wish to invest. Will
you accept these twenty‑one Krowne as a good‑faith deposit? I, and
perhaps a dozen other speculators in Churt, for partial ownership
and controlling percentages, can guarantee the success of your
c a n a l .”
“What are ye whisperin’ about there!” demanded Gorr from his
side of the ring.
Hozz replied loudly, “Damned if I know! He wants to buy my canal.”
Wondo stepped back and raised his voice. “Indeed not! I merely
wish to fund it and share in the eventual profits.”
Gorr threw his arms wide. “He thinks ye can really build that
canal, Hozzie! Har har har! Oh, now I see why he wanted into this
game when I said who I play against. Look here, Wondo—that
stinkin’ canal won’t never be more’n it is now! a long muddy puddle,
is all!” He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, toward the
north end of the clearing. I noticed that the trees there had been
cut to stumps, and through the gap I glimpsed a wide, calm stream
running past, from west to east, maybe even the same stream whose
bridge we had earlier crossed in the wagon, but wider here. A small
pier stood out into the water from the far side; pushed up on the
near shore were two wooden rafts, both piled with more skulls.
Gorr was still decrying the entire concept. “Hozzie done wasted
maybe six months of good labor, not just slaves but good Orc soldiers
too, diggin’ that stupid canal alla way from the sea! Har har! And
what do we got? Nothin’! Ye can barely float a raft on it, and Hozz
brags about buildin’ a navy! Har har har!”
Hozz stomped forward in anger. “I just barely started it, ye rock‑
stupid mouse! It ain’t done!”
The group of skinny gray Orcs laid more bets:
~“Ten grek say Hozz lacks the foresight to take investors tonight.”
~“If you mean before dawn, I’ll take five of it!”
~“Ten more grek say he won’t ever float a ship over two tons.”
~“Ever? Specify a timeframe!”
~“Well, eighteen months.”
~“I’ll take two grek of it.”
Gorr would not let up. “He gots all his soldiers diggin’ dirt,
diggin’ mud, har! while they could be raidin’! They ain’t diggers,|
Hozzie! Why do ye think, after six months, ye only got this rotten
“Already it’s fourteen streams diverted into it, from the hills,”
countered Hozz, “and the main channel’s already dug to the coast!
And when we got ships sailin’ from the sea to Churt an’ back,
carryin’ slave traffic and coast‑raiders, who’ll be laughin’ then!”
Gorr persisted. “All them boys do is play at Harb Zar—hey,
where do ye think this ring come from, anyway! and them Zar
tokens piled on the rafts and everywhere around. If I had yer men,
I’d go west, where there’s dozens of villages for the takin’! Pennyfield,
Milton, Packer’s Way, Helky‑on‑Fluss, Uiopa Strand! and a hunnert
more! I could raid them towns for years! Them Umans breed like
h a r e s .”
My stomach twisted. I whispered to Ess, “Packer’s Way is my
village. He wants to raid it!”
Ess had sat down in the dirt, a slack chubby ball of a girl. She
answered, “Helky is mine.” But she added, “Was, before.”
Captain Hozz stood his ground. “Ye’d raid them little towns dry
and burn ’em—don’t say ye wun’t! Ye got no restraint. Then where
would ye be? Ye don’t think big, Gorr! I ain’t happy with just a few
village‑raids here and there! I got bigger plans!”
Wondo smiled at Captain Hozz, revealing sharp‑filed white fangs
in his gray wrinkled face. “It is just such foresight, Captain, that I
wish to reward and participate in materially.”
At last Gorr shook his head, flame‑colored hair flying wildly.
“Enough! We come to play at Harb Zar! This ain’t no fancy parley.
Wondo, take yer place! It’s to me, now!” As Wondo retreated, Gorr
placed another bet in the ring, with coins and a skull. Wondo did the
same, then Hozz, then Gorr again.
Ess sat quietly, and I watched, and I began to understand the
rules of Harb Zar.
The white or black paint inside the skulls marked each gambler’s
bet as true or false. A gambler could put out a white bet—a “true
bet” or “Ekk Zar”—and risk losing it, as play went around the
ring ... but on a future turn he could use any of his white bets to
try to win other players’ treasures in the ring. He could put out a
black bet, too—a “cheating bet” they called it, “Harb Zar”—and
it was basically useless for the one who placed it ... but if someone
else tried to win it from him, the cheater won back his own black
bet, plus whichever white bets the other gambler had used in the
challenge. Unable to see the paint inside the skulls, no gambler
could know whether another gambler’s bet was white or black. Other
rules were in play, apparently, which I couldn’t grasp; but I had the
essence of it, and it seemed a heartless, greedy game of lies and
betrayal and risk, Orcish to its core.
Then on Hozz’s next play, he turned and grabbed Ess by the arm
and hurled her into the ring, in a tumble of dust. “I wager a table
slave!” he called out. “I reckon her at twelve Krowne.” He laid coins
in the ring and ordered me in a low voice, “Gimme a white skull.”
Marked as a white bet, Ess was at risk, and I might lose her.
I hadn’t known her for more than a few hours, for more than a
hundred words at most, but I didn’t think I could bear to see her
taken away, not in the depth of this dangerous night. “You mean a
black one!” I squeaked at Hozz, maybe a little too loud, or maybe
he just didn’t like the disobedience, because he swung his fat arm
around and punched me a glancing blow on the cheekbone. I
scrambled to the pile of skulls and dug one up, a white one. But I
didn’t hand it to Hozz. Instead I took it into the ring and put it by
Ess, who sat in the dirt, wide‑eyed and shivering with fear. I had
nothing to say to her.
Hozz stared at me, squinty‑eyed. He stared at the skull I had
put by Ess. Slowly he reached for it and lifted it and looked inside.
I almost imagined disappointment on his twisted ugly brown face
when he saw that I had put down a white‑painted skull, as he had
“Inspection!” Gorr announced. He stomped into the ring and
approached Ess. “How long ye been plumpin’ this one up, Hozzie?”
Hozz said proudly, “Weeks! Lotsa milk and corn‑slop an’ so
forth, kept her inside alla time. Lookit the skin! not a mark, kept her
all wrapped up an’ so forth. Heheheh.”
With a few harsh rips, Gorr pulled the linen away from Ess’s
flabby body. She tried to curl into a ball, arms and legs pulled up
tight, but her voluminous rolls of skin were plain for all to see in the
pale moonlight. Gorr broke a wide grin, and Wondo’s group made
succulent sounds and traded private bets about how (or whether)
Gorr would cook her if he won her.
Play started once more around the ring: on his next turn, Gorr
declined to try to win Ess, and he bet a thowing‑dagger for twelve
Krowne. Wondo wagered a silver coin‑box, and Hozz a gold spittoon.
All the while, Ess sat naked in the ring. But when Gorr’s next turn
came, he hollered, “I call in the table slave, with my dagger! Here,
see, my token is white. Hozzie, show that skull!”
Hozz’s fists clenched left and right, left and right. Surely he had
been planning to use Ess in a wager against something valuable—
why else put out a white skull?—but his bet had been called, and he
had lost her. With an incoherent curse he kicked over the skull next
to Ess, and although he had not actually shown everyone the white
paint inside, they all knew the color, just from Hozz’s reaction.
Grinning horribly, Gorr stomped into the ring and grabbed Ess
by the arm to drag her away. She kicked and screamed, and I bit
my lip and said nothing and did nothing because what could I say
or do anyway, and as soon as Gorr released her, I guess to get a
chain to lock her into his own wagon, she got up faster than I could
have guessed she was able, with so much weight to carry, and still
screaming wordlessly she dashed toward the dark trees. Gorr would
catch her though—I knew he would. If I hadn’t been frozen in a
prayer for Ess to run even faster, then maybe I would have made a
run for freedom, too, but as if in slow motion I saw Gorr pick up
his dagger and throw it side‑handed, and I saw it strike Ess high in
the back—I turned my face away because I didn’t want to see any
more—and I heard the small, dull sound the dagger made, and the
sound of her tumbling into the dirt, but after that she made no more
sounds. Gorr said something about eating her sooner than he had
planned, and the group behind Wondo began to settle a few of their
My hands were tingling, and it went up my arms and down my
legs. I couldn’t look at the Orcs anymore, so I looked behind me.
Hozz’s wagon‑puller—an Uman just like me! like Ess!—still sat
without expression by the wagon. Hozz wouldn’t want to walk home,
so the wagon‑puller must have known he wouldn’t be killed tonight.
But now I had no such hope. I bunched my legs underneath me,
trying to find the courage to sprint to the trees, to outrun Gorr’s
dagger or maybe an arrow. What would I do, where would I go if I
made it out of the clearing? I didn’t care.
But even at that moment, I missed my chance to run—Hozz
got a handful of my hair and dragged me toward the ring. “A harem
slave!” he called out, and he was ready to throw me into the game.
I hissed at him desperately. “Do you want to beat Gorr?”
He pulled me upright. I hung from his fat arm, with my toes
scraping the ground. It felt as if he might rip my scalp off. He pulled
me closer, squinting. Hot, foul breath huffed against my face. “What
are ye sayin’? I will beat Gorr!”
“Not this way.” I was holding his wrist with both my hands, trying
to relieve the pain of his grip on my hair. “But I know how.”
“Rrr.” His yellow eyes narrowed even further. “What are ye sayin’.”
“Bet your canal.”
“You’ll beat him! Can’t you see how jealous of it he is?”
From the north side of the ring, Gorr barked, “What sort of
cheatin’ is goin’ on there, Hozz, ye gray‑headed old pile of meat!”
I kept at it. “Bet your canal. Gorr won’t be able to resist it—the
next bet is his, and if he doesn’t try to win the canal, then Wondo
will have a chance and we all know Wondo won’t pass it up, you
know he won’t, and Gorr knows it too—”
“I keep the canal! It’s not up for a Zar!”
“Of course not! Put a black skull on it. That’s how you beat Gorr!”
Hozz shook me then, by the hair: I felt all the skin on my head
stretching and I nearly cried out. Hozz made a rumbling sound. But
neither shaking me, nor rumbling, could help him find any flaw in
He kept hold of me, but he turned to the ring. “I Zar my canal!”
Gorr stared, speechless, but the group behind Wondo burst
into furious speculation.
~“It’s a Distant Zar! Ten grek say he can’t scribe a clean contract.”
~“Ten grek say he can’t scribe at all.”
~“And the canal! Does he hold lease to the land?”
~“These country boys use axes, not leases.”
~“Five grek say can’t explain the peripheral properties.”
~“I’ll take that!”
Wondo smiled and said, “An excellent wager, Captain Hozz! Put a
value, and place your Zar.” His glinting eyes flashed at Gorr.
But then Gorr had found his voice. “Hold hold, wait a breath
here ... what is this wager, now. It’s a cheat! What are ye bettin’—the
I twisted under Hozz’s arm, and yelled to the entire group,
“The whole canal! All the workers, all the slaves! The rafts, tools,
shovels—” and Hozz’s other hand, balled into a fist, came around
and smashed against my temple. I tumbled to the side, with white
lights sparking in my vision, and the sparks quickly became a
stunning burst of pain, like a heavy clamp screwed onto my head,
unshakable, inescapable. For a moment I couldn’t tell up from down,
head from foot—and then I twisted and lay flat, and I felt the bare
dirt under me, the ground, the hard earth, and I was free of Hozz’s
grip though surely I had lost some hair. I lay still, trying to breathe,
silently begging for the pain to pass, because I didn’t dare try to
shake it off. I heard them still talking.
“—required by the rules. If Gorr agrees to—”
“Pah!” Hozz’s voice: “My word is good enough! Are ye callin’ me
a liar? Will ye call me it again, if I walk over there—”
Wondo’s voice: “—in this case, will suffice! We have witnesses,
we heard the terms—Gorr, you will agree?”
Gorr: “I guess.”
Wondo: “But a value must be declared, as well. Captain Hozz! Do
you have, on hand, sufficient cash for the Zar?”
I got my hands under me, and slowly I rose into a sitting
position. Through blurred vision I saw Hozz loom in front me. This
time, instead of picking me up by the scalp, he actually bent down
and thrust his face near. “Yer plan is stupid! I ain’t got the cash.”
I worked my jaw and spoke past the dirt on my tongue. “Put one
Krowne less than Gorr has in his pile.”
Hozz looked over his shoulder, then back at me. “My canal’s
worth fifty times that! More!”
Gorr’s voice again: “What cheatin’ are ye doin’ over there, now,
Hozz, ye stone‑eater!”
“Shut up!” Hozz yelled, and I answered quickly, “The real value
doesn’t matter. He can’t resist the bet. He’ll risk it all—you’ll win it all.”
My eyes had cleared enough for me to see Hozz as he towered
over me, pondering the plan. His fists clenched left‑right, left‑right,
his jaw opened and closed—“Alright.” He stood up straight. “Gorr,
what’s yer cash‑pile! Give the number.”
“No business of yers!” countered Gorr
But Wondo’s chorus piped up:
~“In the rules, have to allow inspections, have to show a clear bank, to deserve any space on
Gorr threw his arms into the air. “Fine! Who cares! I gots over
two hunnert Krowne. Yeh, I think two hunnert and a few more. Why
do ye care about it, Hozz!”
Hozz stomped forward, to the very edge of the ring. “I Zar my
canal, at one hunnert nine’y‑nine Krowne!”
Another flurry of whispers erupted from Wondo’s comrades, but
Gorr’s howl drowned them out. “Hozz, ye are a cheatin’ hound‑dog! What
trick are ye playin’! Don’t ye know I’ll carve out yer heart, if ye cheat.”
“Cheating is the whole game,” noted Wondo calmly.
Hozz turned to me; he had a grin of malice on his warty face;
his tusks flashed in the moonlight and the firelight. “Put out the Zar!
All hunnert whatever Krowne, and the skull, into the ring.”
I got to my feet, my head ringing and the ground seemingly
tilting to the left. I found Hozz’s cash‑pile. A hundred and ninety‑
nine Krowne—an incomprehensible fortune!—I started counting it
out, placing stacks of coins into the ring, and most of them I didn’t
recognize, didn’t even know what value they represented, but I didn’t
care, it didn’t matter, everyone knew what was going on, and no one
Then I took a skull from the pile, and checked the color inside,
and set it by the coins in the ring. When I had placed Ess’s token,
Hozz hadn’t trusted me, and he had verified the token’s color. This
time, he didn’t look.
Gorr was pacing back and forth through his arc. His eyes glared
at the coins, but he was seeing past them to the ownership of the
canal. “All them slaves and soldiers,” I heard him muttering.
And now Hozz declared, “I done put my Zar, so it’s to ye, Gorr!
It’s yer play! Heheheh.”
Gorr focused on Hozz. “I don’t trust ye!”
“Dun’t matter! Ye have to play now!” stated Hozz in a gloating slur.
Wondo’s elation at this turn of events had made his lips spread
wide. Through his tiny pointed teeth he said, “Oh, what would be
worse for Gorr! To risk two hundred Krowne and lose to a Harb Zar,
or to pass this bet by, pass this chance, and see me win the canal, if
Hozz has laid it as an Ekk Zar!”
“I know the choices!” snarled Gorr. “Ye slug, Wondo! Are ye
twistin’ the knife in me!”
Hozz could not contain his glee. “Heheheheh. Ye squirm pretty,
Gorr!” and even Wondo and his friends chuckled at that too.
Gorr’s breath audibly pulsed through his snout. I thought the color
of his face had shifted. At last he choked out, “I call in the canal!”
Wondo was quick to declare, “Gorr, you do not have enough Zars
in the ring to call in the canal. And we have established already that
we play by Churter protocols tonight. If you wish to challenge the
canal, on this turn, you must place a Zerk”—he glanced at the few
other Zars in the ring, and summed up—“of two hundred thirty
Krowne, to call in all the current Zars.”
“I ain’t got two hunnert an’ thirty! or I don’t think. Wait.” Gorr
bent to his pile and started counting.
Hozz roared with laughter, and, finding laughter not enough
to express himself, he teetered into a left‑right stomping motion, a
crude Orc‑warrior dance.
Gorr cried out: “Two hunnert thirty two!” He might have been
lying, I thought; who would count? “Ahhh har har har! Hozz, ye bag
of blood, har har! I got ye now!” He was throwing handfuls of coins
into the ring. “I Zerk, now! I put a Zerk of two hunnert whatever, it’s
here, har har har, I call in the canal!”
“You must call all Zars, if you Zerk,” Wondo reminded him.
“Fine! I call ’em! I call all the Zars, Hozz, and that’s yer canal,
har! Ye’ve lost it to me! I’ll fill it in with dirt an’ muck an’ weeds, an’
I’ll use yer soldiers for real soldierin’!”
I saw Wondo’s hands were shaking. “Captain Hozz has not yet
revealed the token on his canal Zar. We do not know who has won.”
Gorr hopped in place. “Show the skull! Show it!”
Hozz stood eerily quiet, but his grin had widened and his eyes
blazed. He told me, “Show the skull.”
I walked into the ring, and lifted the skull, and showed it around
the ring. Its inner paint was white.
“Har! Ahh har har!” Gorr succumbed to a fit of ecstasy. “Ahh
Hozzie, Hozzie! I win I win I win! Har, ye thought ye could trick me,
har har! I win!”
Hozz blinked, and his grin slowly drooped. “What?”
Gorr was dancing in circles. “I win! I win!”
“Well played, Gorr,” admitted Wondo, subdued.
Hozz’s hands opened wide, his fat fingers ready to grasp. His
stare at me felt like a sword through the heart. I stepped backward,
and he advanced, his voice choking and breaking. “What—what did
ye do, ye trampy little piece of skin! Did ye put a white skull? What
did ye do!” He was faster than I was—Orcs are always so fast, no
matter how fat they are. He caught me by the neck, one‑handed.
My face went hot and purple, and I wrapped both hands around his
huge wrist but it was solid as stone.
“Drop her, Hozz! She’s mine now!” yelled Gorr.
“Ye said, all yer slaves, with the canal!”
I couldn’t breathe. My ears roared. My feet were off the ground.
I couldn’t budge his grip on my neck. I wouldn’t have time to
suffocate, because he’d crush my throat, he’d pinch my head off
before I could die from lack of breath.
Wondo stated officiously, “You did indeed say ‘all the slaves,’
“All the slaves for the canal! This ain’t no canal slave—”
“You did not specify,” said Wondo. “We took your word in place
of a scriven contract. The ruling must go for Gorr. This slave will
eventually become his property.”
“He can have her corpse!” cried Hozz. “Or the pieces of it!” He
shook me; my legs, my whole body flapped like a rag.
But Gorr was saying, “Hey what did ye say, Wondo, what d’ye
mean ‘will be’? She’s mine now! I won the Zar!”
“A Distant Zar, by definition, transfers ownership at some future
point after the game. What you have won, Gorr, are the rights to the
canal, the soldiers, the slaves—you’ve won a debt from Hozz, but not
the actual property, not yet. The property is not technically here.”
Gorr pointed at me; I could see him through a haze of floating
indigo dots. “That’s here! That slave, I want that much of it now,
anyway, before Hozzie breaks her!”
“A debt is a single consideration. The slave is Hozz’s until he pays
the debt, or upon his death when the transfer of estate will take the
debt contract into account, in your favor.”
“Heheh!” said Hozz. “She’s still mine! What do ye think of
that, Gorr!” To emphasize it, he tossed me to the ground near his
treasure‑pile. I lay gasping, stinging, aching. “And don’t think ye’ll
keep the rest, either! I’ll win it back!”
That brought laughter all around, and from Gorr a sneer. “Ye
think I’d wager it? How stupid do ye think I am!”
I had some of my breath back, then, and I sat up and hissed to
Hozz, through my ravaged throat, “You can still beat him.”
He swung his head around, and his face twisted in refreshed
hatred. “It’s yer fault this happened! Ye put the wrong skull! I’ll put
yer own skull out there!” He advanced with both hands open—I
cowered, scrambling backwards on my hands and feet, and Hozz
loomed over me, as dark as death.
“Set me free!” I screamed at him.
He stopped and stared, hands suspended over me. From behind,
Gorr and Wondo and all the others said, “What?”
“What?” said Hozz also.
I said, “That’s right. You owe all your slaves to Gorr. But if you
have no slaves, he gets none.”
“What! No!” Gorr yelled. “That’s not fair!”
But Wondo and his group were laughing, and Wondo said, “Well,
the contract for the Zar did not state any specific number of slaves.”
Hozz stood up straight. His face had gone completely slack,
no grin, no scowl, no squint. Silence had fallen across the entire
clearing, except for the crackle of the campfire, the rustling leaves
around us, the night crickets—all so quiet I could almost hear the
stars drift overhead.
Hozz turned his face toward Gorr, then toward Wondo, then at
last back to me. He said, “I set you free.”
Gorr made a short, unintelligible sound. Hozz turned to Gorr,
and a triumphant rictus distorted his horrible face. “That’s right! I
set her free! I set them all free! No slaves for you, Gorr!”
Even the wagon‑puller looked up, at that comment.
I was backing away, still, on all fours, in the dirt.
Gorr stuttered to Wondo, “He can’t do that!”
Wondo explained, “In the simplest interpretation of the contract,
he owes you whatever slaves he holds at the time of transfer. If any.”
“Imagine it this way. Even as I left Churt today, I saw Hozz’s
digging team at work. They are laboring still now, and will keep on,
through the coming days and nights, extended the canal toward the
site of the King’s intended docks near the city walls. Should the last
few miles of canal, which are not dug yet, remain Hozz’s property?”
“No!” exploded Gorr in an outrage. “It’s all mine!”
“But that part doesn’t yet exist. So you agree to take the canal in
its future state—not as it exists now.”
“I’ll stop the crews tomorrow!” Hozz threatened.
But Gorr ignored him. “I don’t care about that trench—I want
the soldiers! I got villages to raid! I get the soldiers, right, Wondo?”
said Gorr, almost in supplication to Wondo’s erstwhile authority.
Wondo spread his bony hands. “If I remember right, you rural
warlords take personal blood oaths from your soldiers. Captain Hozz,
for fear of murder by his own men, at the insult, cannot relinquish
their oaths—except if a contract or feud forces him to.”
“So they’re mine!”
“Yes. They will be.”
“The soldiers, for sure!”
“The contract is vague on several points ... but, yes.”
I was still backing away. Now I stood and walked shakily toward
the canal, toward the rafts.
They noticed me then. Gorr hollered, “Where’s she going!”
“She’s free,” Wondo reminded him.
Hozz, who had lost everything—his slaves, his soldiers, his
money—and his cherished canal—Hozz stood in a daze, a confused
but ebullient smile still locked onto his dark warty face.
I had reached the rafts.
Gorr realized it then. “Well, why can’t I just take her! Capture
her! If she ain’t Hozzie’s no more—where’s my dagger—”
I knew precisely where the dagger was, but I wouldn’t look at it.
Wondo said, “Yes, go after her! She is unclaimed property.”
The two rafts were both stacked with Harb Zar skulls. They lay
a few yards up from the water. I heaved on the smaller one; its edge
dug into the wet earth; I moved to the far side and tried to lift it, pull
it, haul it off the dirt and into the lazy stinking canal.
~“Fifty grek, that Gorr will chase the little slave.”
~“Twenty grek say he doesn’t know his Zars go to default if he leaves the
~“Two hundred say if Gorr defaults, the canal will be in Wondo’s pocket by dawn.”
~“Two hundred say Gorr or Hozz, one of them at least, won’t live out the night.”
I risked a glance back. Gorr was staring at me. His greater
treasure might still lay in the ring—Hozz’s soldiers, that’s what Gorr
really wanted, more power to pillage Uman villages, take slaves,
shatter lives—but all that was an abstract future, and I was still a
real presence. He looked back and forth between me and the skinny
gray Orcs. “What’s that, ‘default’? What is it. Is it what I think ye
Wondo spread his hands. “Rules of the game.”
Gorr was watching me slip away. I was his for the taking, for the
next few seconds anyway, until I got the raft into the water, until I
could finish this escape in plain sight.
Hozz croaked, “Yeh, go after her, Gorr! Heh.”
My feet were in the water, sinking in mud. The raft scratched
free of the dirt and slipped into the canal.
Gorr threw his hands high and stepped into the ring to scoop up
coins. “I don’t trust ye! The canal, all these other Zars that ye made
me call in—it’s mine! I want it all now, before ye try to cheat again.”
I climbed onto the raft, on my hands and knees. There were no
oars—just a crude bare mast hung with a lantern, and maybe I could
work the mast loose to use as a pole—but for now I could only let
the current carry me eastward, away from Churt, away from the Orcs.
I looked through the trees as the raft began to drift away from
the clearing. Hozz was still smiling, almost drunkenly, at having
cheated Gorr out of the slaves. I will remember that smile: the smile
of a cheater who has lost everything.
I had cheated, too. I had cheated Hozz, with a white skull. I
had cheated Gorr out of one little harem slave, with the lives of my
family, my whole village. I had made my bet—my cheating bet—my
killing bet. If the canal had run the other way, maybe I could have
warned them all. But the canal ran east toward the distant sea, and I
had no other way out. I took it. I floated away with my life.
The Rules Of Harb Zar
A wide area is marked out and called the Ring. No one can enter the
Ring except to place, claim, or withdraw Zars and Zerks, or to
Each gambler must ante cash to an amount established to mutual
agreement as the “Buy‑In.” Each gambler sets cash at least to
the amount of the Buy‑In in a pile just outside the Ring, to mark
that portion of the Ring as that gambler’s arc. Cash outside the
Ring (in his arc) remains the gambler’s property at all times and
is not at risk. He can add to his pile at will. If he removes his
cash from plain view, and has no Zars in the Ring, he falls out.
The Buy‑In can be raised or lowered at any time by unanimous
consent of all gamblers.
Once the game has begun, new gamblers can buy in, with a
sufficient ante, at any point around the Ring, to create their own
Play begins by drawn lot and proceeds to the left, one gambler at
During his turn, a gambler must make one (and only one) play of
~ Place a Zar.
~ Place a Zerk (and call in all Zars in the Ring).
~ Call in one single Zar of another gambler.
~ Call in all Zars in the Ring (with or without a Zerk).
~ Withdraw a single Zar of his own (not more than one).
~ Buy out.
Note well! that a gambler cannot do any of these things in his turn:
~ Place a Zar and withdraw a Zar.
~ Place a Zerk without calling in.
~ Place a Zerk to call in fewer than all Zars.
~ Call in more than one Zar without calling in all.
Placing a Zar.
~ A Zar is a useful object, plus its cash value, plus a token. The
gambler places the Zar in the Ring near his arc.
~ A token is an Uman or Elfin skull , painted inside with
pigment marking it white as an Ekk Zar (“True Bet”)
or black as a Harb Zar (“Cheating Bet”). The skull is set
upright by the Zar object and cash so that the pigment is not
visible to other gamblers. In formal Harb Zar, the token is
traditionally painted on top with the name of the object, its
value, and/or its owner’s name.
† Originally a gambler was required to use, for tokens, only the skulls
of victims whom he had personally slain; this stricture fell out of
practice with the rise of professional Harb Zar gamblers.
~ The cash value of a Zar is decreed by the gambler who places
it. This value cannot be disputed. It cannot change as long
as the Zar is in the Ring. Note well!—that an obviously‑
overvalued object, often called a “Bragging Zar,” is frowned
upon though not outlawed, and in fact some crafty gamblers
make clever and profitable use of Bragging Zars. Note well
further!—that upon a gambler continually placing Bragging
Zars, others in the game by conspiratorial effort can cause
the braggart to buy out or fall out and then refuse to readmit
him. Commonly, violence ensues. Excessive use of Bragging
Zars is therefore deemed unwise play.
Placing a Zerk.
~ A Zerk (“Empty Bet” or “Empty Zar”) is a cash‑only† wager,
placed only in preparation for calling in all Zars. The
gambler who places a Zerk must immediately risk it all, and
all his Zars, to call in all other Zars in the Ring. The gambler
can place a Zerk of greater‑than‑necessary value if he wishes.
Calling in a single Zar.
~ The caller designates as the “called Zar” a single Zar owned by
~ The caller designates one or more of his own Ekk Zars, of
total value at least equal to the called Zar. He reveals their
tokens as white. Harb Zars cannot be used in a call.
~ If the caller reveals a Harb Zar by mistake, it becomes an
Dea d Za r.
~ The owner of the called Zar reveals its token as black or white.
~ If the called Zar is white and true—Ekk Zar!—the caller wins
the called Zar’s cash and property. Any of the caller’s Ekk
Zars used against the call are withdrawn.
~ If the called Zar is black and false—Harb Zar!—the caller loses whichever Ekk
Zars he designated in the call. The called Zar is then withdrawn to
its owner, along with the caller’s lost proper t y.
~ “Calling in a Zar” is sometimes referred to as “challenging
a Zar.” The “caller” is often referred to as the “challenger.”
† In days of yore, the cash of a Zerk counted as only one‑third of its face
value for purposes of calling in Zars; however, divisional arithmetic
confounds most Orcs (who find plenty of challenge in addition and
subtraction), so this rule has fallen obsolete.