Avoiding the Discarded
"What did I tell ye about that?"
Jaki had expected those ambiguous conversations, the ones that
usually ended up with him nursing a swollen face, to go away
after he left Donovan. They didn't. The pain of the old man's
relentless beatings subsided, but that was only physical anguish,
a thing as fleeting as summer's pleasant breezes.
The memories of Donovan's lessons were as vivid today as the
bruises had been when he'd learned them, if not as painful. The
Trader's hand had been heavy and gnarled from The Long Road, and
it was quick to deliver its own verdict, especially had Jaki been
slow to take the lesson.
He didn't know where that particular memory came from, or what
had triggered its return from the cellars of his mind. The
argument that day had been over the knots he'd used to lash down
the mule's bags, but know that he remembered it, Donovan hadn't
been angry about that at all. It had been the Discarded that had
gotten to him.
It was the Discarded that brought the memory to surface in the
murky depths that were Jaki Sixtoe's mind.
Those had been long days, brushing the old man's mules, cooking
his meals, taking his beatings. From the southern shore of the
Delaware to the cold, dark north he had followed him, learning
the routes, the language of the Long Road. Other Travelers worked
those roads as well, and others went even further south, where
the rains were known to wash entire caravans into the sea, and
west, out into the flatlands where Jaki had heard the winds would
carry a man off. The north was considered the safest bet, from
what Donovan had told him, all you had to worry about was the
brutal winters and the Discarded. Always the Discarded.
Now Jaki was on his own for the first time, and his client, a
salt and tobacco merchant from the deep south, wanted to avoid
the Discarded City altogether. He could almost feel the back of
Donovan's hand across his cheek, and laughed quietly to himself.
"You realize what'll happen if they find us?" he had asked the
merchant, a stout man with short-cropped hair and a bad limp. On
one side of his face was a blotchy scar from some ancient burn,
and his beard still refused to grow there, like a dense forest
avoiding tainted earth.
On his feet, the merchant wore heavy leather boots with rubber
soles, the type Jaki had heard referred to as "engineer's boots".
The leather was well-oiled and supple, yet at the toe of the
right foot the leather had cracked and peeled back, revealing a
steel shell beneath. Jaki had stared at those boots for a long
time while he'd considered the offer, comparing the boots to his
own worn moccasins.
The merchant had only shaken his head, "Dey ain't goan find us,"
he'd grinned, exposing yellow teeth. He'd been chewing the
"Dat's what you're here for."
Jaki had nodded and said nothing more of it, and their small
caravan trudged onward along the river's edge. Two mules loaded
with tobacco and salt, one man loaded with greed, another with
Donovan's hoarse voice echoed in the back of his mind, laughing
like an old drunk conscience, "They'll find ya. They always find
Jaki shook the voice away and led the mules up the steep red bank
of the muddy river, up into the thick brush of the Jersey swamp.
There were large trees here, still heavy with leaves even though
the autumn had set in early this year. Between them grew a thick
brush, but Jaki could barely make out a game trail that wound
through, and he led them along it. Somewhere off in the north and
east, he knew, across miles of marshland that was almost
impossible to cross without a boat, lay the towering ruins of the
Discarded City, where all roads were drawn.
Had they been following the roads, they would have already been
set upon by the Discarded and taxed, their cargos branded and
sent on their way. They'd have been in the clear then, permitted
to travel through the Discarded City and onward to the north. The
tax was usually a pretty heavy one, nearly one-third of the
goods… but the roads it paid for were wide and clear, straight as
a good whore's teeth, and the protection it afforded was second
Night was falling on them quickly, and all around them began to
rise those moss-covered carapaces from before the Burning and the
Fall. People lived here once, and thrived, if what the Tellers
told was true. They built cities one on top of the other, and
roads as wide as any river to funnel their Traveler's between.
Jaki tended to think that most of what the Tellers said was lies
and made-up stories to give people a good laugh, but he believed
them when they told him the stories of those old cities, of their
markets where people traded paper for food and cloth that came
from the other side of the world.
Paper for food! That had really blown Jaki away. These days, the
only ones who wanted paper for anything other than wiping their
asses were the Tellers, and they were an odd bunch anyway…
So what if these old ruins used to house his ancestors? Now they
were nothing but the tombstones of humanity, shelter for naught
but ghosts and wild dogs.
The ghosts didn't worry Jaki much, but he hated dogs. Dogs
barked, and barking dogs wouldn't be helpful to their current
He stopped inside a particularly solid structure, three stone
walls still standing and a rusted steel panel that at one time
must have been the roof but now leaned inward. This building had
had no windows from what Jaki could tell, and in one of the
corners a particularly large elm tree was perched, its roots
grasping greedily over the rubble. The air smelled clean, but the
skies above were darkening quickly and they weren't likely to
find shelter like this any time soon.
"We'll stay here tonight."
The merchant didn't argue, on the contrary it had seemed to Jaki
that his limp had gotten worse over the course of the day. It
wasn't easy terrain they were crossing, but that was the cost of
avoiding the roads.
Jaki unloaded the mules, brushed them down, and picked the mud
from their hooves. A Traveler's mules were his only valuable
possession, and these two Jaki had taken when he walked away from
Donovan, heading out on his own Road with the old man wrapped in
thin blankets, hacking and spitting curses after him.
This merchant had approached him a few days earlier with a
shadowy deal, promising Jaki half his profits in hides and furs
upon arrival to the northern outposts, so long as they didn't get
taxed by the Discarded. Jaki was interested, to say the least.
For the past two years he had been making all of Donovan's runs
for him, while the rotten old bastard had sat back at camp eating
more than his share of the profit and drinking the rest. Donovan
had taught him much in those twelve years, some of it
unwittingly. For Jaki it all became the same lesson over time: If
a man was to look out for anyone, it was himself first.
Some made a pretty living for themselves guiding merchants like
this scarred fool with the heavy boots away from the roads and
through the wilderness, avoiding the paths of the Discarded. It
was dangerous work, to say the least.
"Light, you son of a-"
"What the fuck are you doing?!"
Jaki rushed over and pulled the spark from the merchant's hand,
shoving him back away from the pathetic pile of sticks and tinder
he had been trying to set afire. He laid one hand across the
merchants face, hard like he was slapping a whore who'd just bit
too hard, and the merchant let loose a muffled moan and stumbled
"You'd draw moths to a flame!"
The merchant scrambled to his feet and stood toe to toe with
Jaki, the left side of his face pink and already starting to
"Ye lil' shit! I'll have yer ass-"
Jaki's second blow sent the merchant to the ground, and this time
he wasn't so quick to rise. The Traveler stood over him, the
merchant's spark in one hand, his other hand pointing in the
"The Road is mine! You shut yer mouth and do as yer told, or yer
dead, understand? The Road is mine!"
Jaki had kept his voice barely above a whisper, but every word
was soaked in venom, and still the merchant winced at every word,
nodding furiously. Jaki tossed the spark onto the merchant's
heavingchest and went to set up his own bed beneath the wide
limbs of that sprawling elm. It was going to be a long night,
he'd be lucky to get any sleep at all.
In fact, he didn't even try to sleep until he was sure the soggy
snores of the merchant were real.
The Traveler awoke to a splattering sound and a hot wetness on
his cheek and forehead. He leapt clumsily to his feet, tossing
his blankets to the side as he did so and swinging wildly at
mid-air, still blind with sleep. Around him he could hear a
chorus of laughter, and out of the fog of sleep emerged the
shapes of half a dozen men and women around him.
He froze as sudden realization dawned upon him, even as the first
hints of sunlight lingered far below the eastern horizon.
"Quite so, Traveller."
The laughter ceased, and the one who had answered took a step
toward Jaki out of the semi-circle that had formed around him,
pinning him back to the old concrete wall. A tall figure, with
long blonde hair that poured over wide shoulders, stood with arms
crossed over his chest.
Wait… no, her chest.
Jaki recognized now those faint traces of femininity in that
figure. The soft, hairless skin over those angular law bones, the
slender fingers. Even the shoulders had been a deception at
first, Jaki realized, as she wore some sort of strange harness
over her torso, with straps that ran beneath the pits of her
arms. Some relic from before the Burning, no doubt dug out from
the rubbish heap that was the Discarded City.
She had been the only one to remove her hood enough for Jaki to
make out her face, and the only one to step forward. She was the
leader of this band, he had no doubt.
"You get lost out here in the swamp, Traveller?"
Jaki didn't answer right away, and instead looked left and right
for any sign of his mules and the merchant. Nothing, and thoughts
of treachery ran through his mind, visions of that slimy southern
bastard making off in the middle of the night with the goods,
leaving Jaki to deal with his mess.
The woman must have sensed what he was looking for, and snapped
her fingers at him, pointing up above and behind him. She was
smiling, and Jaki noticed that her hands were stained a deep
crimson color up almost to the elbows.
He spun and looked up, not surprised to find the merchant there,
stripped bare and lashed to the elm with his own intestines. His
throat was slit vertically down to his navel and opened up like a
shimmering flower. From his organs oozed bile and blood down his
legs, dripping from his large toe on his right foot to the
ground, precisely where Jaki's head had been resting.
On the blotchy scarred cheek some trickster had, in blood, drawn
a little smiley face, the left eye of which ran down and joined
the wobbly smile. Finally the smell of the Trader's broken bowels
wafted up to Jaki's flaring nostrils and theTraveler doubled
over, losingwhat little food he had eaten the day before. A new
round of laughter erupted from the seven Discarded rangers who
"Enough," the woman said to her followers, "What's your name,
Jaki couldn't answer, every time he opened his mouth, and new set
of stomach heaves overcame him, and sent him retching on his
hands and knees again.
"It doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter what the name of
that sweaty, needle-dickedsnake was. I suppose the only thing
that matters is that it isn't you hanging there. Isn't that
Her voice was soft and only lightly reprimanding, like a mother
who had found her young son spying on the wash maids. It almost
sounded, Jaki thought, like she was holding back a smile.
Sick bitch, he thought, but only said, "Yes, very."
His stomach had settled, and as he clambered weakly to his feet
he kept his back to the merchant's corpse, trying to force the
image out of his head.
She seemed to taste the word while she scanned Jaki with dark,
mud-colored eyes, "Yer a young enough man, well-built… you don't
look to be simple, by any means. Inexperienced, maybe, but not
She paused again and locked eyes with Jaki, her deep brown eyes
matching his own, and he thought there looked to be a hint of
sadness in them. The image of the mother and child flashed
through his mind again.
She sighed, and motioned with her hands as if she were dismissing
the whole affair.
"We've taken yer mules, Traveler, and the goods. The salt will go
to good use, if yer concerned about that sort of thing, and the
tobacco will fetch a handsome price at market."
"I want," Jaki said, in between breaths, "I want my mules back,
if it's all the same."
There were chuckles from behind the woman, and even she grinned a
little at this. She cocked her head to the side and one eye brow
pinned itself up in surprise, "If it's all the same? Those mules
would feed many mouths in the City, and winter's coming quickly.
Between the meat and the salt, ye've served us very well. It
isn't, as ye put it, 'all the same'."
The woman looked at him pityingly, and indeed Jaki felt on the
verge of tears. Had Donovan not smiled inward to himself when
Jaki claimed himself a free man, and independent Traveler?
"You would steal from us, then beg? What has happened to the
pride of the Travelers in these parts, that it should come to
"I didn't know…"
"BULLSHIT!" she yelled in his face, and it was a deeper voice
than he would have expected from her, a commanding shout that
sent the men who followed her straight as boards, and caused
thewoman among them to turn her faceaway, "Unless I was wrong,
and ye've a little mutation in yer brain. That so, Traveler? You
Jaki shook his blood-soaked head, "I'm sorry… it was my first
run. His offer was…"
The woman made another dismissing motion with her crimson hands.
"What's your name, Traveler?"
Mutations were common enough these days, though the more horrible
ones, the babies with the extra face or the guts on the outside,
were put to death shortly after birth. Extra arms, missing feet,
and you were sent to live in a sort of pitiful exile in the
Discarded City, provided your brain worked, at least. His
malformed digits were little more than a slight defect, barely
noticeable and easily hidden, but people still held a
superstitious nervousness about it that Jaki liked. Hence, Jaki
The Discarded woman stared hard at him for a moment and took a
step forward, so close he could smell the dried beef on her
breath. She looked him up and down, then smiled, reached out her
hand, and firmly grabbed his cock through his woolen pants. He
started, his eyes going wide, but she tightened her grip and
pulled him closer.
"Got any other extras?" she asked through that wicked smile, and
winked at him as she shoved him back and released him.
Her band laughed heartily at this, one in particular who was
barely more than a red-haired child, was bent over and wiping
tears from his eyes with another's hand clapped on his back. Jaki
assumed he must have looked pretty foolish, and a nervous smile
grew on his own lips.
"Alright, Jaki Twococks, alright. Gather yer things, yer coming
back to the city. Don't worry, we're not gonna string ye up or
burn ye when we get there. In fact, ye might yerself profiting
from this little adventure."
Confused, Jaki looked between the woman and her comrades, who
were still chuckling at his expense. He had half-expected her to
slit his own throat right there, and hang his runny corpse in
that ancient elm next to the merchant, but now he found himself
being brought back with them to the Discarded City, with what
sounded like a business offer. A strange turn of events, to say
His mood, so dark a moment ago, brightened and he smiled honestly
this time. His smile widened when he noticed the merchants
clothes in a raggedheap against one of the old stone walls, his
sturdy engineer's boots lying among them.