So, gathering a few nuts here and a sweet forest flower there, the three maidens walked farther and farther into the forest until they came upon a clearing--formed like a circle--with mosses and ferns for its carpet and great overhanging branches for its roof.
"How pretty!" cried Seseley, gaily. "Let us eat our luncheon in this lovely banquet-hall!"
So Berna and Helda spread a cloth and brought from their baskets some golden platters and a store of food. Yet there was little ceremony over the meal, you may be sure, and within a short space all the children had satisfied their appetites and were laughing and chatting as merrily as if they were at home in the great castle. Indeed, it is certain they were happier in their forest glade than when facing grim walls of stone, and the three were in such gay spirits that whatever one chanced to say the others promptly joined in laughing over.
Soon, however, they were startled to hear a silvery peal of laughter answering their own, and turning to see whence the sound proceeded, they found seated near them a creature so beautiful that at once the three pairs of eyes opened to their widest extent, and three hearts beat much faster than before.
"Well, I must say you DO stare!" exclaimed the newcomer, who was clothed in soft floating robes of rose and pearl color, and whose eyes shone upon them like two stars.
"Forgive our impertinence," answered the little Lady Seseley, trying to appear dignified and unmoved; "but you must acknowledge that you came among us uninvited, and--and you are certainly rather odd in appearance."
Again the silvery laughter rang through the glade.
"Uninvited!" echoed the creature, clapping her hands together delightedly; "uninvited to my own forest home! Why, my dear girls, you are the uninvited ones--indeed you are--to thus come romping into our fairy bower."
The children did not open their eyes any wider on hearing this speech, for they could not; but their faces expressed their amazement fully, while Helda gasped the words:
"A fairy bower! We are in a fairy bower!"
"Most certainly," was the reply. "And as for being odd in appearance, let me ask how you could reasonably expect a fairy to appear as mortal maidens do?"
"A fairy!" exclaimed Seseley. "Are you, then, a real fairy?"
"I regret to say I am," returned the other, more soberly, as she patted a moss-bank with a silver-tipped wand.
Then for a moment there was silence, while the three girls sat very still and stared at their immortal companion with evident curiosity. Finally Seseley asked:
"Why do you regret being a fairy? I have always thought them the happiest creatures in the world."
"Perhaps we ought to be happy," answered the fairy, gravely, "for we have wonderful powers and do much to assist you helpless mortals. And I suppose some of us really are happy. But, for my part, I am so utterly tired of a fairy life that I would do anything to change it."
"That is strange," declared Berna. "You seem very young to be already discontented with your lot."
Now at this the fairy burst into laughter again, and presently asked:
"How old do you think me?"
"About our own age," said Berna, after a glance at her and a moment's reflection.
"Nonsense!" retorted the fairy, sharply. "These trees are hundreds of years old, yet I remember when they were mere twigs. And I remember when mortals first came to live upon this island, yes--and when this island was first created and rose from the sea after a great earthquake. I remember for many, many centuries, my dears. I have grown tired of remembering--and of being a fairy continually, without any change to brighten my life."
"To be sure!" said Seseley, with sympathy. "I never thought of fairy life in that way before. It must get to be quite tiresome."
"And think of the centuries I must yet live!" exclaimed the fairy in a dismal voice. "Isn't it an awful thing to look forward to?"
"It is, indeed," agreed Seseley.
"I'd be glad to exchange lives with you," said Helda, looking at the fairy with intense admiration.