Previously on The Ringstetten Saga:
Peace seems to have returned to the nation, and to the Northern world at large. The Walloons have, once more, made up with the Ringstettens. King Charles XII dies young and childless, during the siege of Fredrikshald, "a petty fortress", shot in the nape of the neck at night by "an unknown hand", still unclear if of friend or foe, on the 30th of November 1718. General Rehnskiöld, released from captivity, rejoined the Swedish Army and witnessed the death of his liege lord. Aurora von Königsmarck, in her ancestral seat, has died peacefully in her sleep.
And Parliament has been reinstated in Sweden.
Three decades after that, two more rune stones stand next to each other, beside Liselotte's, on the road to church, and Katia and her spouse are rulers of the peaceful shire. Etienne, now widowed and elderly, having handed over the foundry to his eldest son, lives in the hall with them, and he is the children's tutor. The foreign countess has given birth to seven children, of which only the youngest three have survived their first year as punishment from the Sidhe: twin boys, both blond and amber-eyed, and a slightly younger platinum blond and blue-eyed little girl. But... has the Sidhe really forgotten her oath of revenge and decided to put daring Krister, curious Kristian, and self-indulgent Ulrika to the test?
Picture three children as pure as driven snow, one catching butterflies and collecting flowers, one playing with her rag dolls and reading storybooks, the third wielding a wooden sword and daydreaming himself away to the days of the Thirty Years' War during history lessons. All three are blond, though the twin boys are strawberry blond while the younger girl's hair is fairer. The flower gatherer is Kristian, curious and introspective, excited at the discovery of new animal and vegetable life. The swordsman is Krister, impulsive and outspoken. You can tell him from his brother by the little scars on Krister's rosy cheeks. Doubtless he wants to be an officer. The little girl's name is Ulrika, and she loves fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty, Molly Whuppie, the Doe in the Woods, Red Riding Hood, Lunkentus, are her best friends and the stuff of her daydreams, and so are Metamorphoses characters like Echo and Daphne.
The estate where they were born and raised is the keystone of their world, that extends as far as to the rectory, the Midsummer Green, the van der Heide steel mill, and the blue plains of Lake Vänern. There be dragons beyond these limits, as the worldview of sheltered children has always proclaimed. Yet this is the Age of Light and Reason, and those dragons will soon be dispelled.
It all starts in the woods, returning home from the Midsummer Green, one warm afternoon in early autumn. Kristian has got enough rarities (dragonflies) secured in his butterfly net. Krister, as expected has brought his pinewood sword, and Ulrika is dressed in her finest frock, a sky blue one with petticoats, brought from the Netherlands via Gothenburg. With fluttering ponytails and throbbing hearts, the Ringstetten children have an encounter with a female stranger in the woods.
Her raven hair, tangled and interlaced with colourful glass beads and feathers, her tawny skin, her pitch black eyes, the outrageous clothes she wears (a shirt and puffy breeches made out of patchwork in many bright colours) imply the barefooted stranger may be a gypsy/Roma or a foreign madwoman.
She is actually our old frenemy the Sidhe in mortal guise. The children don't know it. And she has decided to put them to the test, to see if the Ringstettens are worth further punishment for their disregard of the pact.
Upon meeting the little nobles in their cravats and overcoats, tricorns and stockings, and Ulrika in her blue frock, she surprises the three siblings by offering each one of them a hazelnut the size of a walnut.
Ulrika's contains a dozen court gowns (made of satin, velvet, brocade, choc-a-bloc with ribbons and lace) plus a riding outfit, social events and dances and picnics, macarons and liquor in spades, the promise of a carefree and ever-happy life, and that of a brave, clever, wealthy and renowned partner,... but also a dark secret.
Krister's contains a full officer's uniform: plumed (tricorn) hat, blue coat with epaulets, golden breeches, leather boots, spurs, pistols, rapier and all. Plus the leadership of a company, to crown it all. But also the gift of reflection, and those of honour in victory and mercy in defeat...
There is only one nut left, the odd one out, and it is meant for Kristian. It contains "the best life that can be lived according to wise thinkers": a peaceful life of concord and respect among well-intentioned loved ones.
Yet Kristian is not ashamed or disappointed at all.
Upon returning to the estate of Vänersvik, the excited siblings decide to open each one the nut given by the dark stranger. Consuming the nuts will bring the fulfilment of the wishes within after seven years. Though Kristian's is shrivelled and black, he does not hesitate as he puts it to his lips.
Weeks follow each other, autumn turns to winter, and soon seven years have elapsed. The three young nobles have grown in size, in beauty, and in cleverness.
And those wishes are about to come true.
In late springtime, when the birch trees are in bloom, the Ringstettens get a visit from a van der Heide friend, a lecturer at Uppsala University itself. He doesn't hesitate to take after Kristian (in an innocent way, that is), though the young boy is paying attention to a frog until startled with a pat in the back. They discover passions they have in common, and soon they are showing each other plants and bugs. The next day, the Count and Countess do not hesitate to accept an offer without any equal: Kristian will study at Uppsala and live with one Lindelius, a colleague of the Walloon's, as a son in the Lindelius household.
The next day, Kristian leaves the estate in the scientist's carriage.
The two other children start to miss their brother, and it takes them until midsummer to cope with their feelings. But, on Midsummer Eve, their paths suddenly diverge.
A cadet offshoot of the Ringstetten dynasty is returning home to court (being one of the Queen's ladies) in an elegant baroque carriage, after visiting the Governor of Värmland and taking part in the revels of the Midsummer Green. And Caroline's stay at Vänersvik and her impression of Ulrika (not noticing that the girl's perfect French is spoken with a Wallonian accent) convince her to adopt the young blonde. At first, her parents are reluctant for Ulrika to start a new life at Drottningholm, the Swedish royal court, but they finally yield to Caroline's idea of introducing such a belle in society.
Ulrike is surprised by the plan. The farewell knows no equal. Cue Gustav Adolf and Katarina worrying about their daughter in all that elegance, among all those self-centered strangers!
Thus, young Krister has become his parents' only joy, overprotected and longing for the freedom he enjoyed when his siblings were by his side. Restless by nature, he tries to calm down reading the Memoirs of his ancestor (remember Gerhard's memoirs?) and viewing himself as the tried young officer. It seems that change will never enter his new life of strict rules...
In late autumn the same year, a detachment shows up near the estate. The rittmeister (captain) who leads the unit is searching for the highwaymen of those woods, a wild ragtag band known as the Värmland Wolves. Surprised by a thunderstorm, the soldiers take refuge at Vänersvik for the night. That evening, the Finnish rittmeister has a conversation with Krister's parents, as our young hero eavesdrops from behind the door. According to the rittmeister, Krister is meant to be a military officer. There is a vacant ensign slot in the garrison of a Karelian fortress, across the country, right at the Swedish-Russian border. The Count and Countess decide to send the other son of theirs to the army, for, according to the rittmeister, "he may become a general if he plays his cards right". And because Kristian is the heir and the other two are spares.
It is thus decided that Krister should be an officer: his dream is finally come true. But insecurity seizes him as well: maybe he will never become a general or a war hero?
So young Krister spends the night awake, much to the surprise of the rittmeister upon finding the boy unconscious in the room he once shared with his twin brother. Our future officer does not even listen to his parents' words of farewell nor feel their kisses, and he falls asleep on horseback, riding behind the rittmeister, as the golden birch leaves fall onto the soldiers' uniforms.
They have soon left the estate and the province of Värmland. Gustav Adolf and Katarina have at least each other and the hopes that their children will live happily ever after.
But will they?