“Stay out of the woods”, people tell their children, “Children who don’t listen to their parents get stolen away by the imps and the goblins.”
“Don’t stray from the path,” they tell their daughters, “There are hungry wolves there who will deceive you.”
“Don’t tarry after nightfall,” they tell their sons, “And don’t speak to strangers.”
The woods are not safe. The woods are harsh and cold and the trees stand so closely together that one can scarcely breathe when stealing across its borders. Anyone walking beneath the dark green roof knows too well the feeling of eyes on their backs, of being watched with suspicion and anger and hunger.
The woods are not safe. There are wolves and bears that speak like men and curious little creatures who demand that you guess their name. So the villagers say in nervous whispers as they hear of yet another child disappearing. But children do not seem to fear the woods. They sit on doorsteps and fences listening to the wind whistle through the branches like the tones of a ghostly flute, and wonder if goblins really do steal naughty children.
Two children are left in the forest alone by desperate parents. The brother leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, hoping they will find their way home. When they wake in the evening, the trail is gone. “Animals must have eaten them,” they say to each other in dismay.
There are no animals in the forest.
There is not a single insect or bird that dares to nest in any of the trees. No elves nor fairies nor imps nor goblins. There are only the trees, and the trees watch. Some bend their branches low to offer fruit to the children that listen to their music. They cradle the children in long strands of vines, let the wind howl through the branches, and the children forget. They forget their homes and their parents and their lives before stepping under the leaves.
They join all the other children of the forest, neither human nor tree, with flesh on their bones and sap in their veins. They run freely through the trees for years, but as the children of the forest grow older, they slow, and eventually stop. They put down roots, they grow tall and strong, they stretch out their arms and they wait. One day one of them who is not quite old enough to join his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles leaves the woods for the first time since he and his sister were abandoned there long ago.
The forest is old, and it does not produce seedlings on its own. Young trees must be found elsewhere as the forest extends its borders.
Elsewhere, there is a town in need of aid. Vermin have flooded the streets, the houses, carrying disease with them. A strange young man in a tunic of patches enters their town and offers to rid them of the rats. He takes from his belt a flute carved from a fallen branch, and it sounds like wind singing through the trees.