Annotated Excerpt: THE LAST ROAD by K.V. Johansen (Pyr)

JohansenKV-GotCR5-LastRoadThe Last Road is the fifth and final novel of Gods of the Caravan Road, and although the other novels in the series can be read alone (counting The Leopard and The Lady as one book, Marakand, in two volumes) it’s written assuming that the reader has at least read Blackdog. You could probably get by piecing together supposition about Ahjvar, Ghu, and Yeh-Lin from the middle books, but you need to know Moth and Mikki and Holla-Sayan. However, they aren’t the people they were at the end of Blackdog. This is almost two centuries later. Their world has changed and so have they.

I’m very excited — make that, very nervous — to be offering this up to you at last.

First, here’s the novel’s synopsis:

When even the gods are dying, the hope of the world may lie in its most feared enemies. A new god proclaimed as the All-Holy has arisen in the west and leads an army eastward, devouring the gods and goddesses of the lands between, forcibly converting their folk and binding their souls to himself. The very fabric of the world appears threatened by forces beyond the understanding of scholars and wizards alike. Even the great city of Marakand, where the roads of east and west converge, seems powerless to resist the All-Holy, though the devils Moth and Yeh-Lin and the assassin Ahjvar, undead consort of the god of distant Nabban, have come to stand with it. That may avail Marakand little, for the shapeshifting Blackdog, once a champion of the gods, follows obediently at the All-Holy’s heel and Lakkariss, the sword of the cold hells, is in his master’s hand.

*

Chapter I

 . . . earlier, on the threshold of winter, following the All-Holy’s crossing into the lands east of the Karas

There is actually a very short prologue that is set later than this chapter. It introduces the character of Sarzahn, who is very important to the story and tied into some mysteries that have been hinted at along the way through the other books. Sarzahn himself is a mystery, though not a deep dark one — the sort of mystery that makes you all anxious because you know at least some of the truth and someone in the book to whom it should matter very much doesn’t. The prologue is introduced with “… the early days of winter in the year in which the All-Holy came into the lands of the Caravan Road, east of the Kara Mountains.” Between that and “… earlier, on the threshold of winter…” you are getting a strong hint: pay attention to the time-markers that start many of the chapters. Given that the story starts in the middle and follows several narrative lines scattered over half a continent, I really needed to have a way to mark time. As I’d neglected to set up any kind of consistent calendar at any earlier point, it seemed weird to impose one now, especially as Nabban and Marakand would each have their own and I’d end up having to change the system depending on the point of view character, which would become intrusive. I eventually decided to use these internal references; explicitly tying the action to the time of year and some critical event gives you the relevant position of that section of the story. Here, you’ve also got the threat of an army on the move — from where? To where? The Karas weren’t on the earlier maps… so something’s coming from beyond the edges of the world we’ve seen so far.

Jolanan jolted awake at the hand squeezing hers. Silent. Straining to hear, even before her eye blinked open, what the alarm might be this time. They were behind Dimas’s Army of the South on the desert road. Just another handful of refugees, creeping towards what safety was left in the world, if such a thing existed at all. There were others, caravaneers, mostly, making for Marakand. That made no more sense than running into a burning house because at least it was a roof over your head. But where else could they go, a caravan-mistress had asked bitterly the evening before. At least maybe if they fell in with the straggling tail of the Army of the South they might earn their keep carrying baggage, and so find a way home to Marakand, even if their goods would be forfeit to the plundering of the priests.

“They’ll make you deny your gods and tattoo you for the All-Holy,” Rifat had warned them.

The caravan-mistress had shrugged. “Small price, if it gets us home. Gurhan will forgive us words spoken to save our lives, and what’s a bit of ink?”

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be about Holla and Moth and Ahj and all? New person! New person with only one eye. Is there a story behind that? And there’s an army again, but now we’re in known territory. We’re on the desert road, and there are caravaneers, and they’re heading for Marakand. But it doesn’t sound like Marakand is offering them much hope of safety — they’re talking about attaching themselves to what seems to be the enemy to get there. Right away, too, we have mention of tattooing, which the folk of the deserts and the Western Grass do to show their folk, but here priests are involved, and a god who isn’t theirs, and maybe that is going to remind you of something you came across in Gods of Nabban

“Time to go.” Holla’s whisper, close above her. “All right?” Hand brushing her face, a caress. Jolanan crawled from her blankets, rolled them, found her sabre. Hadn’t even taken off her boots, that was how lightly they slept. Holla left her to wake young Rifat, and Iarka last. The four of them had lain a little apart from the caravaneers, chance-met strangers, and had set their own watch. There should be one or two from the caravan wakeful, questioning their rising.

There was not.

Their camels were already harnessed and the one they led loaded. Holla had done that before waking them, when he should have been keeping watch. Only the rolled bedding was left to strap on.

The sky told it was near the end of the third quarter of the night. The waning moon would have risen near midnight.

They managed all in silence. Even the camels were quiet, no grumbles at the early start. Unnatural. The caravan was left sleeping behind them. Not a wizard, but maybe when Holla wanted someone to sleep, they slept. Jolanan didn’t know. She wasn’t, she found, comfortable with asking.

Oh good, there’s Holla-Sayan, someone we know. He seems on rather good terms with Jolanan, or presumptuous, but we know Holla’s not that type. Something between them, then. Wait, what about his wife, Gaguush? It’s a couple centuries later, remember. More new people, Rifat and Iarka. This isn’t going to only be about the immortals we know.

Five camels, even unexpectedly agreeable ones, were not exactly tiptoeing in silence, though they wore no bells. Creak of harness, crunch of sand and stone. No one stirred behind them. “Why?” she asked softly, when they were a little distance from the camp. She wouldn’t have risked that, except that she was certain no one would wake till they were well and truly gone.

“We don’t want to travel with them,” Iarka said. “Traitors to their gods already, in their hearts.”

“You can’t blame them for wanting to save their lives,” Rifat said.

“I can,” said Iarka.

“We don’t want to travel with them,” Holla said, “because we don’t want them talking of us, when they do run into some Westron priest or knight. You two make sure they forget us.”

As if that were an easy and ordinary thing. Jolanan did not think it was, even for a wizard of Kinsai’s folk.

The two wizards put their heads together, riding side by side, voices low. Holla rode ahead, until the paleness of his camel and the baggage-carrier faded into the desert night. Iarka and Rifat followed without seeming to pay much heed to their route. Passengers. It was the camels who followed. Jolanan hung back as rearguard, for what use she could be there. Moonlight was enough to tell ground from sky, not much more. The sun would be rising in a few hours. In the meantime — Holla’s nose and ears were a better watch for danger than any she could keep.

Jolanan swayed with the camel’s pacing, felt it, the difference underfoot as they crossed yet another thread of the braid that was the hard-packed road, deep rutted by the passage of centuries of soft-padded feet, a flowing river of lives and hopes and goods, a pulse pumping along it, east and south to west, to north and back again . . . she could feel it like a heartbeat, but she was groggy with sleep still, dreaming. She was no wizard, no poet, no bard to think such things. But if the road held memories, its own dreams . . . maybe they drifted into hers.

We’re learning a little about the new people here. This might even remind you that the goddess Kinsai’s folk keep the ferries over her river, and are mostly wizards and her descendants or children, by birth or adoption. Maybe you remember that Holla-Sayan and Kinsai had a bit of a thing, back in Blackdog. It looks like being fellows in flight from this army hadn’t brought Jolanan’s party and the caravan they’d met with together. Holla explains why, and gives everyone a little context, the practical reasons, while Iarka’s are angry; she wouldn’t travel with them even if it were the sensible thing to do, and she’s not feeling charitable about their fear, either. Jolanan, meanwhile, is giving us a view of this night-lit desert, a place strange to her, the feeling of the romance of the caravan road. This is not her place. What’s brought her here?

Silver light on the barren slopes found a cluster of hairy saxaul marking some hidden dampness. She could see they were riding south, not south-easterly. Dry hills before them and the mountains beyond, mountains that dwarfed the western Karas, the skyline of her childhood. No one crossed the Pillars of the Sky. The lands beyond, to the south, were a silence even to the bards. One might climb into them, but only by a few tracks. There were folk lived there, folk of the gods of the mountains and goddesses of the mountain waters. But to find the road to the high lake and valley town of Lissavakail, and the folk of the goddess Attalissa, whom the Blackdog had once served, they must come first to Serakallash though the desert-edge town of the goddess Sera.

“There are ways,” Holla said, looking back, as if he’d heard her thoughts. “We’ll travel the tracks through the mountains’ feet. No caravans, no Westron strays or outposts left to watch their supply lines, we can hope. Water, if you know where to seek it.”

It’s useful, to have a stranger among those who know this place. Holla can plausibly orient her, and you. And a bit more is revealed about what they’re trying to avoid — an army with supply-lines and scouts, not some war-band raiding, and they are Westrons, the folk who are mentioned in Blackdog as having dead gods and hardly ever coming east into the lands of the caravan road — though the Blackdog’s first human host was Hareh, a Westron wizard…

The murmuring of the wizards had gone silent some time before. Their magic-making done, whatever they had been doing.

“Yes,” Iarka said. “Fine. Whatever. Will we come to the lake sooner, this way?”

“No.”

She muttered something under her breath.

“What?”

“This camel is making me sick.”

“It isn’t the camel,” Rifat said.

“Fine, this baby is making me sick and the camel isn’t helping.”

“Aren’t there, I don’t know, herbs . . . ?” Jolanan regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Silly to feel that as the only other woman, she ought to be the one offering advice. Two wizards — and even if one was only a boy of fifteen, he knew things, far more than she about almost everything. Except killing, maybe, and cattle. Two wizards, and a man who’d been around a very long time, with women in his life, and babies, whole lives lived of which she knew nothing, because he didn’t speak of them. But her mouth persisted. “Ginger? I think I heard that somewhere. Or — some wizard thing?”

“We have no ginger left and some wizard thing is the only reason I’m not losing my breakfast all down this beast’s shoulder, not that we’ve had any breakfast.”

“Sorry,” Jolanan said. “I should just shut up, right?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Maybe we should stop, make some tea?” Rifat suggested.

“Not yet,” said Holla.

“Soon,” said Iarka. “Or else, old man.”

“Yes, dear.”

That didn’t sound like Holla at all, and won a snort of laughter from Iarka.

So here, there’s a bit of fun, although probably not for the one experiencing morning sickness on a camel. We’re seeing some connections between them — a camaraderie. They’ve been together long enough to talk like this; even Jolanan, who looks like the outsider, the common person who is neither wizard nor legendary immortal. But she still feels awkward, not entirely sure of her place. She’s still not part of them. Now what’s between Holla and Iarka, though?

Dawn followed as the moon sank from its height, colour seeping into the land. Red sand, red stone, frost in the hollows melting dark as the day’s breath warmed it. They were climbing, and the hills, sand and red grit and flakes of stone, were held together with yellowed grass and low-growing plants long gone to seed, pods empty. She didn’t recognize the shrubs, except the saxaul trees Holla had named, more of them here, growing along what she guessed must be some slough where water would gather in the spring. The Red Desert bloomed then, he had said, when the snows melted and for a brief space it turned green and scarlet, white and gold. The white-cloaked mountains seemed closer now. The Pillars of the Sky, holding up the great high blue.

They made a halt low on the southern side of a long ridge, where their little smoke might spread itself very thin before it rose against the sky. Not that anyone from the caravan was likely to come after them, if Iarka and Rifat had managed to make them forget the encounter, turn the four travellers into some boring dream no one thought worth speaking of, or whatever wizardry might do. Even if the caravaneers did remember, once they’d checked and found their own camels all accounted for and their goods unplundered they’d likely not be bothered. But enemies were ahead of them. Westron scouts might roam far from their march.

Some more verbal mapmaking and landscape-painting. I hope you can see the world, feel it expanding to engulf you — the spring colours of the desert that Jolanan can only imagine at this point, the long reaches unfolding to the sky, the wind carrying the scent of distant snows…

Jolanan’s left eye, or the scarred socket that was all she had remaining of it, was aching again. Or her head was, around there. Hard to tell the difference. Windblown sand found its way into the seams of the scarring despite the leather patch that protected the scars.

Hideous. She still tried not to touch it, washing her face with a dampened rag, while Rifat made the smallest of fires that would boil a kettle with a few lumps of dry camel-dung and some dead twigs. Still couldn’t stand the feel of it to her fingertips. A hollow, filled with scar, crossed with ridges. Being scarred across the face, as if someone had tried to take off the top of her head with an axe, which they had . . . being blind in one eye — neither of those would have given her this twist in the gut, this flinching from herself. But her eye was gone, and whatever the wizard-surgeon Rose had done, it had left no socket for a crystal eye like in the Lay of Brued One-Eye that the bards sang; she had no eyelid, no lashes. Just — ugliness. All that he could save.

Not dead of a cracked skull. Not dead of a festering lump of rot sunk in her face. Not dead.

“Here, let me.”

“I can look after myself.”

“I know. Let me?”

She let Holla-Sayan take the cloth from her hand. Childish and cranky to deny him. He meant only kindness. When he was finished, he waited for her to tie the patch in place again, but wrapped her headscarf for her. A lover’s intimacy, or a sick-nurse’s condescension? She leaned her face into his chest.

“I’m sorry,” she said. For being cranky. For feeling as she did, still — angry, and ugly, and lost. Let the feel of him holding her deny all that. Warm, solid. Arms around her. Unwashed sweat and smoke and camels and the oiled leather of his brigandine. The man she had left her friends, left her duty to the memory of her goddess Jayala to follow.

She felt too young.

She let him go on holding her, standing there, the two of them leaning together.

“Tea?”

Jolanan twisted in Holla’s arms to take the cup Iarka offered. It was black, smoky, almost syrupy. One thought of the ferry-folk of Kinsai as practically beggars, with their ragged, piecemeal looks, their collecting of the odds and ends others threw away, including children like Rifat, who had run from his Black Desert tribe with his small brother for reasons he didn’t go into, but there was always sugar in the tea, and the jewel Iarka wore in the side of her nose was surely a ruby.

Holla didn’t let Jolanan go, accepted a cup over her shoulder, one arm comfortably about her waist as if she belonged there, tucked against him. The fire was out again already, the remnants of the fuel to be carefully packed away once they cooled. Rifat shared out cold, oily campbread from the previous night while the camels ate a little. Jolanan leaned back against Holla-Sayan again, shut her eye. Wished this feeling of misery would stop creeping up and hitting her, this childish despair that she was — somehow no longer herself. Iarka, Rifat — they had lost family, friends—they had ridden away knowing death was going to follow for those they left behind. They didn’t wallow. They rode to something, in anger, in love, in hate, to save something . . . all of that at once. Holla — Holla-Sayan, she had to make an effort to think of him by his true name — him, too. And Iarka made jokes about her morning sickness, and Rifat was earnest and tender with Iarka as if she were his own sister, and brotherly to Jolanan too, the stranger who’d come among them, despite all they had lost. And she couldn’t shake this petty loathing of her own face.

Holla — Holla-Sayan — tipped her head back, kissed her forehead, turned her and kissed her nose and then her mouth. Not playful. Serious. Testing. She knew it. And she felt . . . nothing. Exhaustion that had nothing to do with long days and lack of sleep, which she should be well used to by now. Anything else was a distant dream, a life half forgotten.

“Into the mountain paths by nightfall, if we push it,” he said, letting her go. “Ready to ride?”

Jolanan’s an interesting character. Wounded, and hurting. Her sense of her own self has been shaken. It’s a journey, coming to terms with a changed body, and not merely in the physical adaptations she has to make in the loss of binocular vision and blindness on one side, rather a hazard in battle. She’s had a relationship with Holla-Sayan that she’s lost confidence in along with confidence in knowing herself.

They hadn’t lain together to make love since the evening — the night she had been wounded. Too ill, too tired, not enough privacy, too much grief — there were many reasons and all of them good. She thought Iarka and Rifat would not have minded what she and Holla-Sayan might have done under cover of the night, but someone was always awake on watch and they slept under the open sky. It seemed a good excuse.

She didn’t know what she felt, what she might feel, knowing now what he was.

Which shamed her. Maybe that was the ugliness she felt in herself. Not her scarred face after all, but her secret thought that she had lain with a monster unknowing.

Nothing had changed in him, not his kindness, his patience, not his sudden glints of humour or the passion that lurked under the weariness. He hadn’t changed. Something in her had. For good? He looked like a man. She had seen him turn into a monstrous dog.

She wanted him to hold her. She didn’t want him to touch her. She wished she were home, that the Westrons had never crossed the mountains . . . might as well wish papa had never been injured, that blow to the head that made him a cantankerous child again, in need of constant care, wish mama hadn’t died when her little sister who never lived was born, wish she were a child again.

Wish herself the adult she pretended to be, the skirmisher and then lancer who had fought the Westrons through a summer and autumn of unending retreat, the woman and warrior Holla-Sayan seemed to think he wanted.

Wishes were nothing. Less than mist drifting on the wind.

Iarka had the first watch of the night when they had camped, as Holla-Sayan promised, in the feet of the mountains. There was even water, a little spring welling up from a crack in the rocks, shimmering away to lose itself in a dry, gravel gully, where thirsty roots drank all that it had. There was no goddess, but the mere sound of the water gave a sense of peace, at least to Jolanan.

The air off the mountains was cold, and their fire was already out. They could not go on sleeping in the open much longer, but there were not so many more days ahead of them, Holla-Sayan said, and once they were right into the mountains they could keep a fire going, or cut brush to make a shelter.

She laid her blankets down next to his, the first time she had done so since they left the Upper Castle. He looked at her. Solemn. He had such beautiful eyes. That was what she had first noticed about him, when he was a worrying stranger. The air, too, of danger, of something that might be let loose. It had drawn her, then. Matched something in herself, she had thought.

Well, she had seen that hidden danger surface, seen it wake. Found it wasn’t what she had thought, whatever that might have been.

She didn’t know how to say she was afraid, but she wanted his arms around her again, like this morning, when they drank tea. She wanted to have responded to his kiss.

That was all. That was all there would be, with Iarka or Rifat sitting up, watching the night.

It wasn’t going to be enough for him. She felt that, when they pressed close together under their shared blankets, but what did she expect? And she . . . wanted him. She very badly wanted him and wanted not to be afraid of him, but she dreamed of a black shape laced with fire, and burning eyes, and fangs, leaping out of the night, and sometimes it was her enemy whose throat it seized, and sometimes it was herself.

He pulled her closer to him, more comfortably against him, and she settled her head on his chest. If they started kissing at this point . . . Iarka had climbed away uphill a little and Rifat had turned his back, blankets pulled up over his head. She wanted, she badly wanted, to slide a hand up under Holla’s shirt, to stroke over that bare warm skin, the curling hair there, to let herself touch, as she had used to. To have his hands moving, too, to lift herself up to lie over him, face to face, mouth to mouth . . .

One arm around her, hand on her waist. The other on her cheek, cradling her head against him. He didn’t move again, just held her there, whatever else he might want.

She was so damned tired. And safe. And she wanted to laugh. Rifat was snoring, and Rifat — did not snore.

She settled more comfortably into Holla-Sayan’s embrace. Sighed. Fell asleep.

I had so many non-human characters in the books, and people who were entirely accepting of that, that I wanted to look at things from another angle. Here’s Jolanan, who, it seems, got involved with Holla-Sayan without knowing who, or what, he was. And sometime recently she’s discovered he’s the legendary Blackdog, and it has rattled her, undermined her trust in him. Is it that he’s a monster, or just that he didn’t trust her, that he entered into a relationship under false colours? Is it just everything at once, her own betrayal of a duty she thinks she had, and his failure to be honest with her, and the shattering of her face and her literal image of herself …? She doesn’t know; in her own mind, she’s young and weak and lost and out of her depth. Where she goes from here — there are several possible roads one might take, from such a place in one’s life, in the midst of war. And yet right here, this moment — there’s comfort in him for her. She’s taken a step back towards him again. But — nothing really bad has happened yet, aside from an army on the road to Marakand, which admittedly is pretty bad, and it’s the first chapter of the book, and uh-oh… this can’t bode well.

Woke at a hand on her mouth, a skittering of stone, a body gone tense, half rising, carrying her with him as he sat up. Jolanan rolled away, reaching for the sabre she had laid at her side. Knelt, blade unsheathed. Hearing nothing.

“Something,” said Iarka, and Rifat was on his feet, a spear in his hand. Late enough the moon had risen and she should have had the second watch. The two wizards had let them lie, or someone had slept when they should not, which she did not believe of either of Kinsai’s folk.

“Get out of here,” Holla-Sayan said. “Go! Run! Iarka, go! Jo, get her away.”

Because it was Iarka, Iarka of all of them, who must live.

Why?

Jolanan grabbed her boots in her free hand and ran sock-footed, nothing but a shirt between her heart and an enemy’s blade, to Iarka, who still wore her shirt of Northron mail and stood hesitating by the camels, unsaddled, but restless, now. One began to heave itself up.

Nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard, but the air felt like a thunderstorm. Hopping, she pulled on her boots.

“Go!” Holla-Sayan said — snarled, as Rifat yelled and hurled his spear at a blackness that thickened out of the night. There was a flare of white, as if lightning answered. Jolanan grabbed Iarka’s arm and they both ran. Camels bellowed behind. Something howled. Rifat cried out again. Iarka jerked her arm free, began muttering, tracing shapes in the air. Sparks danced along her fingers and she fell to her knees, crying out, holding her head.

Something shrieked, a high, animal sound. Lightning blazed a path into the sky and for a moment Jolanan saw it, a man, standing, a knife that trapped the light as if it were ice, and he held the dog, huge as a wolf, in the air by the throat, as if it weighed nothing.

*

Well, there, something bad is happening with a vengeance. (You do remember that Holla-Sayan, the Blackdog, is a shapeshifter, right? Jolanan’s thought of monsters should have reminded you, or if you’re recklessly reading this as your first step onto the caravan road in despite of warnings, you were at least expecting something out of the ordinary from him, I hope.)

This is an unusual point to start a book at, partway through the story, and it continues on from here for some chapters before casting back to show you how Jolanan ended up as the Blackdog’s companion, fugitive before the Westron army with a couple of wizards of Kinsai, heading for Lissavakail and the land of Holla-Sayan’s adoptive daughter, the goddess Attalissa. Jolanan’s journey isn’t the one she imagined for herself, for certain, but our lives so rarely are what we anticipate when we’re young and peering out at the future from the threshold of things. Who she’s going to be by the end of the book — well, she’s only one thread of the story told in The Last Road. I hope it’s a journey you’ll enjoy making.

***

K.V. Johansen‘s The Last Road is out now, published by Pyr Books.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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