Denmark 1851. Young brothers Laust and Peter grow up in poor but safe conditions on the local estate in south Funen. As their father returns with other soldiers, victorious from a three-year war with Prussia, Laust and Peter become enamoured with the new estate manager's daughter, the beautiful and fearless Inge. Political forces consider incorporating Schleswig into the Danish kingdom, contrary to the signed peace treaty. Prime Minister Monrad is inspired to patriotic eloquence by a perfomance of Macbeth, with the enticing Mrs Heiberg acting as his muse as the ruthless and manipulative Lady Macbeth.
As Laust and Peter grow up, they are both in love with Inge, who loves them both in return. Peter dreams of seeing more of the world, his interest piqued by the arrival of a family of travellers on the estate. On the politcal stage, the driven and somewhat unbalanced Monrad succeeds in stirring up a national euphoria in Denmark, a belief that the province of Schleswig has been given to the Danes by God. The Baron, seized by this nationalistic zeal, persuades the brothers of their duty to join the army.
Following the shaming evacuation of Danevirke, the retreating Danish troops are harried by bloodthirsty Prussian hussars. Laust's division is caught in a fierce snowstorm and he is ordered to retrieve an artillery piece from a frozen lake. Expelled by her family, Inge travels south towards Sonderborg to find Laust before their baby is born.
Arriving at Dybbol, Inge and Sofia try to find Laust and Peter, but a chance meeting with Didrich dashes their hopes. The Danish forces are bogged down in the town and when the Prussians start a bombardment the senior officers demand a retreat - only to be denied by Copenhagen. Claudia visits her mother and discovers a box filled with family secrets.
The shock of defeat is difficult for the politicians in Copenhagen to accept. Monrad accuses the king of treason for attempting to negotiate with the Prussians. Johan seeks out the families of the fallen and gives Inge's mother Laust's last letter. The news he has for the Baron is too hard to bear. Peter returns home a changed man.