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
The merchant had only shaken his head, “Dey ain’t goan find us,” he’d grinned, exposing yellow teeth. He’d been chewing the tobacco, then.
“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 doubt.
Donovan’s hoarse voice echoed in the back of his mind, laughing like an old drunk conscience, “They’ll find ya. They always find ya.”
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 to none.
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 situation.
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 back.
“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 swell.
“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, Traveler?”
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 fortunate,
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
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 this?”
“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 simple?”
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 Sixtoes.
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 the least.
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.
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