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The sun was high overhead, and the Saturday flea market was in full swing.
"You like? It's twenty dollars, but for you, sweetie, eighteen. No? All right, fifteen!" The vendor held up the brightly patterned silk scarf, letting the breeze ripple it invitingly.
The girl he was addressing gave the scarf a longing look, but shook her head, backing away from the table. Just that hesitation had cost hershe looked around, frantic for a moment, and then hurried to catch up with the woman who, not realizing that her companion had stopped, strode through the crowded flea market several paces ahead. The woman's gaze darted back and forth, scanning the crowd as though she was looking for someoneor looking to avoid someone.
"Libby?" the girl called, her voice high and thin with worry.
Elizabeth stopped, looking back with alarm that subsided when she saw her sister was not in trouble. "Maggie, come on! Stay with me, baby." Elizabeth's voice was calm and soft, but it carried through the crowd, and there was a note of tension running through it that her sister heard as clearly as a shout, and obeyed immediately.
"I'm sorry," Maggie said, running forward and slipping her hand into her sister's. "I'll stay close, I promise."
The two girls were obviously related; both of them were slender, with long legs, although the preteen Maggie's were more coltish than her older sister's. Long black hair, braided in Maggie's case and pulled into a long ponytail for Elizabeth, and wide-set brown eyes with a vaguely exotic cast, further stamped the family resemblance. Their looks hinted at Spanish blood, or Arabic: an exotic edge that spoke of distant lands and warmer climates than their current New England location. Although they wore plain jeans and unadorned sweatshirts, and Maggie had the same backpack over her shoulder as half the kids around her, something more than their looks set them apart from the others milling around them; something obvious, but difficult to identify.
It was a way of looking around, of observing without being part of the crowd, a difference that identified themif an observer knewas residents of an enclave that some cynics called a cult, or a commune, but most people simply called the Community.
Good folk, neighbors would say if asked. Founded, oh, near fifty years ago, wasn't it? Bunch of them came and bought old farmland, built it up nice with houses and gardens and a proper downtown with stores and whatnot. Pay their taxes on time, send their kids to the local schools, mostly. They don't seem to like technology much, but otherwise perfectly normal. Not a cult at all, no. No, there was nothing particularly strange about the Community.
Six months ago, Elizabeth would have agreed with them. Now, she was less certain.
"We have to hurry," she told Maggie. "They saw us come in here, but they can't keep track of us so long as we keep moving."
Maggie nodded, and the two moved on, weaving through the shoppers and sellers, moving around the overladen tables and backed-in vans that filled the parking lot of the makeshift flea market.
"Here, this way." They slipped behind an oversized van near the end of one row, between two racks of brightly tie-dyed summer dresses, and found themselves at the far end of the lot. Behind them, the bustle and noise of a warm Saturday afternoon. In front of them, a muddy field, cars parked in a squared-off pattern. To their left was the bulk of the local regional high school, a redbrick-and-chrome building. To their right, a large and dense-looking wooded area, green with new spring undergrowth and full-branched evergreens, enclosed by a mesh fence with official-looking signs posted at regular intervals. There was one place where the mesh was torn, exactly the right size for a high school stu-dentor a slender adultto slip through.
Elizabeth studied the distance between them and the fence, and then looked down at her sister. "Do you think you can make it, baby?"
Maggie set her jaw, judging the distance, then nodded. "Just keep up," she said with bravado that Elizabeth knew was faked. Her sister had been sick recently, her body wasn't as strong as it used to be. She got tired too easily now, needed more rest, more often. But they couldn't afford to rest, not yet.
"Just nonchalantly at first," her sister advised. "Walk like you're just stretching your legs, no hurry, no worries, okay? Come on, follow me."
They stepped out off the pavement, the muddy grass sucking at their shoes, their backpacks slung over their shoulders casually, as though they were just walking back to their car after a morning of shopping.
"Going somewhere, Libby?"
The two girls stopped cold, Elizabeth instinctively putting her arm around her younger sister as though to protect her from the man walking toward them. Damn.
A flicker of movement caught her eye, and she saw two other men circling around them, as though to herd them somewhere. Somewhere they definitely did not want to be.
Maggie let her backpack slide down her arm, taking the weight in her hand as though to use it as a weapon if need be, and shifted her weight, mimicking her sister's movement.
"Really, Libby," the first man said, exuding compassion. "Look at poor Maggie, she's exhausted. Don't do this to her. Why don't you tell us what's wrong? We're your family, we'll help you. Isn't that how it's always been?"
Elizabeth's shoulders tensed, but she otherwise didn't move. "Go to hell, Jordan. You're no family of mine." All of her family, save Maggie, were dead.
"Oh, Libby." Jordan was in his late forties, a handsome man in jeans and a dark blue polo shirt. He could have been someone's father, heading to a soccer game or baseball practice. But his gaze was intent, steady and cool, like that of a jailer. "Why do you insist on doing this? Come home with us. I know that losing your parents was a shock"
"Leave my parents out of this." The pain of that loss was still bone-deep, six months later, but it only made her more determined to go nowhere with these three. "If they knew what was going on "
Jordan looked hurt and surprised. "Elizabeth, nothing is going on! Nothing except this foolishness. Please, my dear. It's been a terribly stressful time, everyone knows that, but you're overreacting. Let us take care of you, you and Maggie both."
The other two men moved closer, blocking any chance of escaping into the crowd. They were dressed like Jordan in weekend-casual clothing, sturdy hiking boots under their jeans. If it came to running, Elizabeth and Maggie, in sneakers, might be able to escape if they could run at top speed. Elizabeth didn't let herself look at her sister, didn't dare glance down at the leg that was still weak, after her bout with the terrible illness that had taken their parents earlier that year. She would not show fear, not in front of these men.
But the truth was there. Maggie would never be able to keep up.
Maggie leaned in against her sister, so that an observer might assume she was seeking reassuranceor offering it. "I can do it," she whispered, as though knowing exactly what her sister was thinking. Knowing Maggie, she did. Her sister was only thirteen, but she knew far too much, for her age. "I don't want to go back with them."
Elizabeth took a deep breath, still holding Jordan's gaze. Neither of them were going back. The thought of the sleepy little village where they had grown up, once the source of only happy memories, was enough to make Elizabeth ill. There was only death and fear there, now.
She gauged the distance again, and her heart sank.
Maggie, she thought, as hard as she could. Maggie, be ready .
Jordan saw both their gazes flicker toward the trees, and shook his head sadly. "Elizabeth. Maggie. Don't be idiots. You'd never make it, and then we'd all be out of breath and cranky. That's not good. Our van is right over there, why don't we walk over there like civilized people, and let the Elders sort all this unpleasantness out?"
"The Elders can bite me," Elizabeth said through gritted teeth. Before he could respond, she darted toward Jordan as though intending to tackle him. He flinched, and she pivoted away from him, daring him to catch her, even as Maggie was sprinting for the dubious safety of the woods. Good girl, Elizabeth thought. Good girl, run!
Even as she cheered inwardly, one of the other men lunged at Maggie as she went past him, grabbing her by the elbow and jerking her off her feet.
"Get your hands off her!" All thoughts of distracting Jordan fled, and Elizabeth went after the man holding her sister, intent only on freeing her from that hard grip. She had barely taken two steps when her arms were caught behind her back, stopping her forward motion and preventing her from taking further action. She swore, and struggled, trying to free herself.
Jordan's breath was warm in her ear as he said, gently, "There's no need to make a fuss, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had no intention of going, quietly or otherwise. Leaning forward with all of her weight so that he had to lean back to steady himself, she gave a quick prayer that his grip would hold, and then kicked back with both feet, aiming up for his groin. The move sent her off balance, as expected, but she landed a solid blow and had the satisfaction of hearing him grunt in pain, and feeling his grip on her weaken. But her satisfaction was short-lived as he grabbed her long ponytail with a hand and yanked hard enough to bring tears to her eyes.
"Stupid, Elizabeth. Very, very stupid." All pretense of gentleness gone, he nodded curtly to the third man, who went off, Elizabeth assumed, to get their car. The man who had grabbed Maggie now had his arm around her neck in a choke hold. Their pose might, from a distance, look like a friendly roughhouse move, older brother to bratty little sister, except for the white-faced expression of fear on Maggie's face. Elizabeth felt her heart racing painfully, and all she could think was that she had failed; failed her parents, failed her sister, failed everyone and everything important to her.
An ordinary-looking black van pulled up to the edge of the parking lot, its wheels churning the grass into more mud, and the driver got out and slid open the side doors. Nobody seemed to notice, going about their buying and selling and socializing like it was any normal weekend. Maggie's eyes closed, and she looked like she was about to pass out.
Elizabeth's heart squeezed tight, and a sense of panic swamped her, worse than the pain of her hair still being held fast in Jordan's fist. She could not allow them to take Maggie. Whatever else happened, she could not let them have her sister.
Trying to dig her heels into the mud, she prepared herself to make another attempt to get free, now that it was two against two. The odds were still bad, but she had no choice. Once they were in the van.
Even as she was trying not to imagine what would happen then, there was a thudding noise, distant but coming closer rapidly, as though a lone drummer had gotten lost from his band and was heading their way. The noise shouldn't have even registered, and yet it set up an answering reverberation in her bones, starting in her spine and sliding down to her knees. Rather than making them weak, though, it seemed almost to give her strength.
It also distracted Jordan. He swore, and the grip on her hair loosened so that Elizabeth was able to turn her head just enough to see a huge white form barreling from the trees, heading straight for the man holding Maggie.
The drumming filled her ears until she could hear nothing else, not the buzz from the crowded flea market behind them or Jordan's cursing, and all she could see was the inevitable impact about to happen.
Sure enough, the white form slammed into the two figures even as Elizabeth cried out in horror. The man went sprawling, the white figure rearing over it, coming down with hooveshooves, it was a horseeven as Maggie rolled out of the way; free, if muddy. Maggie was safe.