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"They live in the mountains," Astamur explained, as the boat glided along the shore. "They don't like to be seen, but I rescued one of their young once. They don't mind me as much. They are very old people. Been here thousands of years. Left their houses all over the place. Now they are coming back."

"How did they survive?" I offered my hand to Gunda. She sniffed my fingers, regarded me with a very serious expression, and nudged my hand with her nose for a stroke. I obliged. I really missed my attack poodle.

Astamur shrugged. "The atsany slept. Some say they turned into rocks and came back to life when magic returned. They won't say."

"How did he end up in the sack?"

Astamur asked Atsany in his language. The small man crossed his arms on his chest and mumbled something.

"He says gyzmals caught him."


Astamur bared his teeth at me. "Men-jackals. It's bad luck to kill an atsany, so they put him in a bag and threw him into the water."

Volodja and his fellow shapeshifters. "Not the brightest lot. They tried to rob us."

"When magic first came, some people turned into gyzmals. Stories said they were evil. People were scared. When people get scared, bad things happen. Many gyzmals were killed. Then Megobari came. Now the gyzmals run the town, do whatever they want. Nobody can say anything. But robbing people, that's going too far. The boy that led you into the cave has a mother in town. I'll tell her about it. She'll take care of him." Astamur shook his head at me. "I tried to tell you: bad place. That's where Agulshap lives. The water dragon."

A lot of their words started with A. "Not anymore."

Astamur's eyebrows crept together. He said something to Atsany. The small man nodded.

Astamur laughed, his deep chuckle carrying above the water. "I thought I was saving a pretty girl. I was saving a warrior! We should have a feast. We'll celebrate."

He landed the boat and I helped him drag it ashore. We climbed up the mountain for about an hour, until the trail brought us to a valley. Mountains rolled into the distance and between them lay an emerald-green pasture. A small sturdy stone house crouched on the grass, and a few yards away, a flock of sheep with gray curly wool baaed in the wide enclosure.

"I thought you were a hunter."

"Me? No. I'm just a shepherd. There is a bathroom inside. You are welcome to it. My house is your house."

I stepped through the door. Inside the cottage was open and neat, with beautiful stone walls and a wood floor. Colorful Turkish rugs hung on the walls. A small kitchen sat to the right with an old electric range. There must be a generator somewhere. I walked through the living room, past a comfortable sofa covered by a soft white blanket, to the back, where I found a small bathroom with a toilet, shower, and sink. I tried the faucet. Water splashed into the metal basin. Running water all the way out here. Astamur was doing well for himself.

I used the bathroom inside and washed my face and my hands. When I came out, Astamur built a fire in a big stone pit behind the house.

"We're going to cook over fire," Astamur announced. "Traditional mountain dinner."

Atsany ducked into the house and returned with a stack of blankets. I helped spread them on the ground.

Astamur brought out a large pan filled with chunks of onion, meat, and pomegranate seeds in some sauce and started threading them onto big skewers.

I caught the aroma of the sauce, a touch of vinegar and heat. My mouth watered. Suddenly I realized I was starving.

Astamur set the skewers above the fire and went to wash up. The aroma of smoking wood mixed with the smell of meat sizzling over the fire. The sky slowly turned orange and deeper red in the west, while in the east, above the mountains, it was almost crystalline purple, the color of an amethyst.

Astamur offered me a skewer. I bit into the meat. The tender meat practically melted in my mouth. This was heaven.

"Good?" Astamur asked with concern.

"Mm-hm," I told him, trying to chew and talk at the same time. "Delicioush. Besht shting I ever ate."

Atsany leaned back and laughed.

The shepherd smiled into his mustache and handed me a bottle of wine. "Homemade."

I took a swallow. The wine was sweet, refreshing, and surprisingly delicate.

"So you live here all alone?" I asked.

Astamur nodded. "I like it here. I have my flock. I have my dog. I have a fire pit, a clear mountain stream, and the mountains. I live like a king."

Atsany said something. Astamur shrugged. "Castles are for rulers. Kings come and go. Someone has to be the shepherd."

"Do you miss being with other people down in town? Must get lonely up here." I wouldn't miss them. I would totally hitch up a house in the mountain and live all by myself. No shapeshifters. No brokenhearted mothers. No, "Yes, Consort," "Please, Consort," "Help us, Consort." Right now that sounded like pure happiness.

Astamur smiled. "Down in the cities people fight. I fought too for a while until I got tired of it." Astamur pulled up his pant leg. An ugly scar punctured his calf. Looked like a knife or a sword thrust. "Russians."

He wagged his eyebrows at me and pulled his shirt off his shoulder, exposing an old bullet wound in his chest. "Georgians." He laughed.

Atsany rolled his eyes.

"Does he understand what you say?" I asked.

"He does. It's his own kind of magic," Astamur answered. "If it weren't for supplies, I'd never go back down to town. But a man has to do what a man has to do. Hard to live like a king without toilet paper."

We finished eating. Atsany pulled out a pipe and said something with a solemn expression.

"He says he owes you a debt. He wants to know what you want."

"Tell him no debt. He doesn't owe me anything."

Atsany's bushy eyebrows came together. He took out his pipe and lectured me in a serious voice, punctuating his words by pointing the pipe at me. I was clearly on the receiving end of a very serious talking-to. Unfortunately for him, he was barely a foot and a half tall. I bit my bottom lip trying not to laugh.

"Do you want a short version or a long one?" Astamur said.

"Short one."

"You saved his life, he owes you, and you should let him pay it back. That last part is advice from me. It will make him very unhappy to know that he owes someone. So what do you want? Do you want him to show you where there are riches? Do you want a man to fall in love with you?"

If only love were that easy. I sighed. "No, I don't want riches and I have a man, thank you. He isn't exactly a man. And I don't exactly have him anymore, but that's neither here nor there."