An old farmer lived with his wife in a small cottage a little ways away from the nearest village. They were poor, and had very little in terms of material possessions. Nevertheless, they were a religious couple, and were quite content.
One day, when returning from a day's work in the fields, the farmer came into the cottage with the intention of eating the supper his wife had surely fixed him that day, only to discover that his wife was, in fact, gone. She had been baking bread earlier that day, and a message was drawn in the flour on the table. Though uneducated and illiterate, the farmer was at once able to recognize the writing as being in the language of the Faeries. With haste, he set out for the only place he knew Faeries to live: the greenwood.
He reached the wood and wandered for hours, until he all but lost any sense of direction. After a while, the old man's stomach began to growl. He recalled with regret that, in his haste, he had neglected to bring along something to eat; but was unwilling to turn back and forsake his wife to the Faeries.
Even as he thought of how wonderful a hot meal sounded, a Faerie approached him through the trees. She smiled at the farmer and said, "Good sir, I know you must be hungry. I can promise you all the food you could ever eat, and more. You need but say the word, and it is yours." With a flick of her wrist, a large table appeared from nowhere, covered with platters and bowls and dishes of the kind eaten by kings.
But the man knew the dangers of eating Faerie food, and simply shook his head and replied, "I could never forgive myself if I stopped to eat, not knowing what has become of my dear wife."
A scowl on her face, the Faerie vanished, taking the vision of the table with her.
The old man walked on in search of his wife. As he wandered, the sky grew dark and the forest's shadows grew ever more menacing. The famer pulled a match from his pocket and struck it, and from the tiny flame sprang a second Faerie, orange as the fire. She waved her hand and conjured half a dozen glittering piles of gold, each half again as tall as the peasant, saying, "You are a poor man. You have need of money. Simply say the word, and it is yours."
But the man knew the price for such wealth would be heavy, and replied, "It is true that I have little, but with my home and my wife, I was content. In truth, a roof overhead and a kind woman's love make a poor man wealthier than a King." This said, this Faerie, too, vanished.
The farmer resumed his search, the tiny flame of the match lighting his way. When he feared the fire was about to go out, he used it to light a branch. Torch in hand, he turned to a stand of trees.
When he turned, the sight of a third Faerie startled him so badly he almost dropped the torch. She was pale as the moon, with eyes like jet. When he stared into those eyes, the farmer's vision wavered, and before him appeared a grand castle surrounded by a moat. Blue and gold flags flew from every tower and turret. He heard the Faerie's voice in his mind:
"Oft have you dreamt of being a King. I can grant you your own lands and castle. Simply say the word, and it is done."
The old man answered her, his eyes focused on the castle. "I've no knowledge of how kingdoms are run. You would be putting me in an unhappy position, indeed." No sooner had he spoken than the vision dissipated before his very eyes. And so, with the third offer having been declined, the peasant carried on in his search for his beloved.
He was beginning to grow weary as the night wore on around him, the rustling of leaves and the chirping of insects like a lullaby that would have entranced him and lulled him to sleep, were it not for the worry that something might happen to his wife gnawing at his heart. Of a sudden, through the trees ahead, he heard singing. He cautiously approached the source of the sound, surprised to discover eight beautiful maidens, dancing in a circle. Another Faerie appeared, perched on a low-hanging limb beside the old man. "Forget your wife," she crooned to him in a voice as soft as velvet. "Any or all of these women are willing to be yours, if you were but to will it so."
Enraged and indignant, the old man struck the branch, sending the Faerie tumbling to the ground. "What desire have I for other women? My wife is more dear to me than words can express, and I would never forsake her!"
At his words, the Faerie and the maidens vanished as if they had never been.
The aged peasant continued on. He was nearly beginning to lose hope when he came upon yet another Faerie, this one alone, standing in the middle of the path. Wordlessly, she produced a mirror from the folds of her dress, and handed it to the man. In her other, upturned palm she conjured a flame, bright enough to light the area around the man and allow him to see his reflection.
Instead of a wrinkled, tanned face and sparse white hair, however, the face in the mirror was a youthful one, his eyes bright, his smile white and perfect. He knew the face was his own--it had been years, but in his youth, the peasant's hair had been just that shade of brown. There was even the cowlick on the left side of his face that had been ever present in his younger years. While he was gazing with wonder at his image, the Faerie spoke.
"You could reclaim your beauty. It could be yours forever. All you have to do is will it so."
To this, the man replied, after a moment, "My youth has gone; it would not be right of me to ask for it back."
The Faerie smiled. "Then you have passed the last of the tests." She waved her hand, and beside her appeared the peasant's wife, dressed in a gown of the finest silk and bedecked with gold and jewels, though her smile was far more precious to the man than all the finery she wore. "Had you succumbed to temptation," the old woman informed him, "I would have been the price you had to pay." He took her in his arms, and they returned to their cottage, and their simple life, where they lived out the rest of their days quite happily.