Elin Carlson walked into the barn and everything changed. Her sister Sofia stood illuminated by a shaft of sunlight as she paused from her chores; close beside her, talking softly to her, stood Uncle Sven. His hand rested on Sofia's hair, which dangled down her back in a long, golden braid. Elin remembered the weight of his hand on her own head and for a moment she couldn't breathe.
"Don't tell anyone, Elin."
Her fear erupted in a strangled shout. "Sofia!"
Her sister jumped. Timid Sofia was frightened of the dark and of Aunt Karin's geese and sometimes her own shadow. Sofia pressed her hand to her heart as she turned toward Elin.
"Oh, you scared me!"
"Elin sneaks up as quietly as a mouse, doesn't she?" Uncle Sven said. He chuckled in his good-natured way and settled his cap on his head. He strode past Elin, touching her shoulder briefly as he left the barn, the straw crunching beneath his heavy boots.
"Don't tell anyone...."
Elin's heart pounded. She couldn't seem to move and didn't trust herself to speak. Her breath plumed in the cold winter air. Sofia had returned to her chores, but she stopped and looked up again after a moment.
"What's wrong, Elin?"
Sofia was sixteen, the same age Elin had been three years ago when Uncle Sven and his family had moved in with them. She needed to warn Sofia, to tell her what could happen, what nearly had happened today. But Sofia was so young, so innocent. So happy. Elin had been all of those things, too, three years ago.
"What's the matter?" Sofia asked again.
Elin shook her head and hurried out of the barn, running after her uncle, fear and anger boiling inside. Her boots bit through the snow's crust as she ran. She caught up with him when he halted near the woodpile. He slowly turned to face her.
"Eh? You want something, Elin?"
How dare he pretend not to know. How dare he smile as if nothing had ever happened. Elin opened her mouth, longing to shout, "You leave Sofia alone!" But nothing came out.
Uncle Sven stared at her, his eyes boring into hers, his smile never wavering. Then he bent over, lifting the axe in one hand, a log in the other. He balanced the log on its end on the tree stump, then split it in two with one blow.
"You will be very sorry if you tell."
Elin's anger dissolved, leaving only her fear. She was speechless. Helpless.
She turned away and hurried back to the barn, aware that everything had changed. She would have to guard her sister night and day from now on. She could never leave Sofia alone with him again. Or Kirsten, either. Kirsten was their middle sister and only eighteen—had their uncle been alone with her, too?
Fear squeezed Elin's chest as she watched Sofia put fresh hay in the cow stalls. The steady thwacks of her uncle's axe continued outside the barn. Elin drew a shaky breath, struggling to keep her voice calm. "That's good enough for today, Sofia. Go on up to the house."
"Why? What's wrong with you? Your face is as white as milk."
"Nothing's wrong." She snatched the hay fork from Sofia's hand and leaned it against the wall. "I'll walk with you."
"You act so crazy sometimes," Sofia said with a frown.
No one will believe you, Elin. They will say you are crazy.
Perhaps she was crazy. The pressure in her chest increased as she drew another painful breath and tried to speak casually. "What was Uncle Sven doing in here?"
"You'll never guess!" Sofia's pale blue eyes sparkled with happiness. "He said I could ride to the village with him tomorrow if I wanted to. He said he would buy me a treat at Magnusson's store—anything I wanted."
So that was how it would begin for Sofia. She craved sweets as much as Elin had craved solace after Mama and Papa had died. Uncle Sven had offered Elin soothing words and warm arms and a comforting shoulder. "You are special, Elin. Do you know that? My special girl." Now Sofia's trust would be bought with peppermints and licorice sticks.
"You can't go with him, Sofia. I need you to help me with ... with ... I need your help tomorrow."
"But Uncle Sven said that I—"
"You and I will go into town another time. Now come up to the house with me." She tried to link arms with her sister, but Sofia pulled away. The happy expression on her sweet round face transformed into anger.
"I don't have to do what you say. You're not my mother!"
"I know, I know.... But listen, why are you working out here in the barn, anyway? I thought it was Kirsten's turn to do this. Where is she? And aren't you supposed to be watching the children for Aunt Karin?"
"Kirsten took them for a walk in the woods. She promised to wash the dishes for a week if I switched chores with her."
Knowing Kirsten, she and their three young cousins were chasing after elves or hunting for trolls. Every meandering walk through the woods was an adventure for Kirsten, every boulder a crouching troll, every rustling breeze an elf scurrying away. Elin felt her stomach turn over as she remembered how often Kirsten had worked alone in the barn these past few weeks.
But no, Uncle Sven wouldn't be able to deceive Kirsten, would he? For one thing, she never slowed down or stood still long enough to become ensnared by his lies. And for another thing, she was as sturdy and bold as their Viking ancestors, seldom following anyone's rules, acting more like a boy than a girl much of the time. Kirsten would much rather escape from work altogether and explore the forest than sit by the fire and do needlework. Even her straw-blond hair was unruly, always managing to escape from its hairpins and braids to fly as freely as she did.
No, their uncle would find it easier to entice Sofia. She was gentle and shy, with a quiet, compliant nature. She was built more like Elin, too, with fine, delicate bones. Elin remembered the day her uncle had slipped his thick fingers around her wrist and whispered, "Look at that, Elin. As slim as a twig. I could snap the bone, just like that." But those threats had come later, after Elin had grown older and had begun to pull away from him.
She noticed that the sound of the axe had stopped. Her heart sped up. "Come up to the house with me, Sofia. Now!"
"Why are you so angry?"
"I'm not angry. I-I just don't like it when you and Kirsten swap chores. She always takes advantage of you." She steered Sofia out of the barn, quickly glancing at the woodpile. Uncle Sven was gone. Elin scanned the fringes of forestland that bordered their farm in search of Kirsten, certain she would be able to spot her bright red coat and striped blue apron. There was no sign of her, either.
That was another reason why their uncle would choose Sofia. Kirsten could disappear as quickly and completely as a wood sprite, while shy little Sofia never did anything in a hurry. She tiptoed hesitantly through life, as if an unseen harness kept her from galloping down the road into the future along with everyone else. Sofia would be easy prey.
Elin knew it was her fault that Sven had turned to Sofia. Elin had been avoiding her uncle for the past few months, resisting his advances, desperate to break free of him. He knew it, too.
"We must help Elin find a job in town," he'd told Aunt Karin. "She deserves to have a little freedom and some spending money of her own, don't you think?" He made it sound as though he were doing Elin a favor—and before today she had been eager to leave home. Now she didn't dare. Even though she longed to flee as far away from him as possible, she could never leave Kirsten and Sofia behind.
Laughter sounded in the distance as Elin and Sofia neared the cottage. A moment later she saw Kirsten emerge from the woods with her three little cousins. The knot in Elin's stomach loosened as she listened to Kirsten's joyous laughter and watched her and the children throwing snowballs at each other. Kirsten seemed much too happy and carefree to have felt the weight of Uncle Sven's lies.
Sofia broke free from Elin and ran toward Kirsten through the snowdrifts. "How far did you walk? The children look frozen! Aunt Karin is going to be furious when she sees how wet they are."
"We went all the way to the road. And look what we got." Kirsten reached inside her coat and pulled out a small white envelope. She waved it in the air. "We were on our way home," she said breathlessly, "when we met up with Tor Magnusson. He walked all the way out from town to deliver this letter to us. It's from America!"
"Let me see it." Elin reached for the letter but Kirsten snatched it away at the last minute and hid it behind her back.
"How much will you pay me for it?"
"Nothing. Hand it over, Kirsten." Elin's discovery in the barn had made her too upset to cope with Kirsten's games.
"Who is it from?" Sofia asked. She peered behind Kirsten's back, tilting her head as she tried to read it.
"A famous Indian chieftain!" Kirsten said with a laugh.
"It has to be from Uncle Lars," Elin said. "Who else do we know in America?" She turned away and opened the cottage door, stomping the snow off her boots before entering the kitchen.
"You're no fun at all," Kirsten said, handing over the letter. Sofia and their three cousins tumbled through the door behind Elin like puppies, dropping to the floor to remove their wet clothes.
"Hurry up and open the letter," Sofia begged as she pulled off her boots. "Read it out loud to us."
Elin found a filet knife and carefully slit open the envelope, then pulled out the letter. Their uncle in America was upset to learn that their older brother, Nils, had left home. That had been Uncle Sven's fault, too. He and Nils had argued so often that Nils finally had gone to Stockholm to find work, even though the farm rightfully belonged to him. Elin had begged Nils to take her with him but he had refused, unwilling to be "tied down," as he'd put it. He'd never sent them a single letter.
Nils should come to America, Uncle Lars had written. I could find a job for him here. Or if he wants a farm of his own, there is plenty of land in America, too. It is the very least I could do for my sister's son.
"What about his sister's daughters?" Elin wondered aloud. She realized then that she would have to take matters into her own hands. Neither her brother nor anyone else was going to rescue them. Kirsten and Sofia were no longer safe in this house. Once Uncle Sven forced Elin to leave home, just as he had gotten rid of Nils, her sisters would become his prey. She had to help them escape. She had to write to Uncle Lars in America.
Elin sank onto a kitchen chair, suddenly feeling tired. This was her beloved home, filled with memories of her parents and of happier times when they all lived here together. But now bad memories had crowded out the good—funerals and fights and unspeakable secrets. Shame engulfed Elin every time she looked at Uncle Sven.
She picked up the knife that she had used to open the envelope and slipped it into her apron pocket. She would carry it with her from now on, until they were all safely away from here. If her uncle came near her again, she would use it to defend herself.
And if he ever laid his filthy hands on Sofia or Kirsten, Elin would kill him.