A long time ago, when these woods weren’t quite so thick, so uninviting, so hostile to intruders, a witch and her beloved wooden doll lived in a cozy little house.

That doll, so well made, outlasted both the house and the witch.

It did not understand how the world failed to end when its witch did. It did not know what was supposed to come afterward. It did not know how to stray too far from the only place it knew as home.

But even its home grew unfamiliar over time as the forest thickened around it.

The doll’s world kept changing. Mosses and mushrooms claimed the house. Weeds overtook the garden. Trees strangled the old paths.

The doll, like its witch, was never fond of the humans that passed through, but their absence still added to the uncomfortable changes.

The guardian faeries of the forest were merciless when they encountered people entering the forest. Some mocked the humans by taking similar shapes, while others contented themselves to take the form of delicate, twisting knots of branch and leaf.

No matter the shape, they slaughtered anyone on two legs found in the forest.

With one exception: the doll that wandered this place since the time these venerable woods were young. The faeries kept their distance from the creature of legend that haunted their home.

As a result, the doll continued its lonely, aimless trek, unaware that it was carefully watched by the forest itself and the fairies that embodied its will.

They were watching on the night lightning struck.

The Big Tree was among the oldest here. The doll remembered planting it with its witch, and perhaps something yet remained of her power; after all, when the lightning struck, the tree endured.

Sadly, the doll resting underneath its branches was badly damaged.

An arm gone, a leg gone, and with burns disfiguring much of its lovingly carved body, the doll wondered if at last it was time to tie up the last loose end of its witch’s legacy.

It closed its eyes and waited to fall into decay over the course of perhaps a century.

While it waited for the forest floor fungi to take advantage of this opening, the doll spoke its first words since the loss of its witch.

It delivered a sort of eulogy for itself, praising itself for its dedication to service and reliving its favorite memories.

Much of what it described seemed very strange to the faeries, who gathered out of curiosity to listen, but “service” was something that they—as extensions of the forest’s will—recognized.

The ancient cryptid had just become something they could understand.

The doll paused its meandering self-eulogy when it heard raised voices of excited discussion. It opened its eyes to find a green and shaking branch tentatively leaning over its head, offering the gift of a small, strange seed.

The doll was trained too well to misunderstand such a gesture, and so it dutifully opened its mouth and swallowed the seed pushed inside it.

The sprout’s questing roots tickled in its belly. Oh, how the doll missed the sensation of having its insides rearranged on a whim!

Vines grew from its body to replace its missing limbs. Flowers bloomed in its mind to help it Know the forest in the way the faeries did.

For the first time in far too long, the doll felt the pleasure of being given a task.

People had wandered into the forest, and the doll joined its friends to teach them what happens to intruders, a smile on its face as it showed how good it was at following orders.

Perhaps there was a future for the doll to look forward to after all.