The Wildwoods were exactly as Not-Bobby had described them; dark, inhospitable and grim. Beneath the gnarled, grotesque tree canopies, the horses hooves beat a smart but cautious tattoo against the forest's uneven, leaf-strewn floor, the sound of their steps bouncing between the myriad trees that stood, ancient and tangled around them.
The forest was so dense that barely any daylight penetrated it, and the brothers found themselves navigating along the dim track largely thanks to the faint glow emanating from their little faerie guide as he weaved through the branches above them.
Other than the sound of hoofbeats, and the soft whisper of the air through the trees, the forest was utterly silent, putting both brothers on high alert.
A forest was alive and vital; it echoed with birdsong, and thrummed with the sound of small animals scurrying through the underbrush. Here in the Wildwoods, however, all of those sounds were noticeably and disturbingly absent. All of this forest's creatures appeared to be doing their level best to remain unseen and unheard, cultivating a terrible, deafening silence.
This awful place was a living thing without a heartbeat.
A heavy pall of malice and foreboding , as real and oppressive as an oncoming storm, drifted around the Winchesters as they descended deeper into the Wildwoods, and toward whatever dark menace was waiting for them.
They hoped that, whatever it was, they were ready for it.
Dean shifted awkwardly in his saddle. They'd only been riding a couple of hours and his ass was already starting to go numb. He'd mentioned it briefly once or twice, or maybe more, to anyone who might have wanted to listen, but had received no sympathy whatsoever from either Sam or Not-Bobby for his very genuine pains.
However, it appeared that he had managed to make peace with his horse; of that he could take some satisfaction. At least, he figured she wasn't huffing impatiently and looking back at him like he was a moron any more.
Black Beauty he'd named her, Beauty for short. She was glossy, black, powerful and intimidating, just like his baby back home so, although Dean would have to concede it wasn't a particularly original name, it had seemed appropriate.
Beauty was a woman, kind of, and one thing Dean Winchester knew how to do was sweet-talk women. Therefore, he had spent most of their trip through the Wildwoods thus far sweet-talking the hell out of Beauty and now, whilst he wasn't entirely sure if she actually liked him, she didn't appear to hate his guts any longer and, well, that had to be a positive thing.
He reached forward and patted Beauty's strong, arched neck, and she whittered softly in response. Dean sat back and smiled inwardly to himself; even different species of women succumbed to his charms eventually, and that was friggin' awesome.
And just a little bit disturbing too.
A little way ahead of him, Sam and his giant mule were forging a path along the narrowing track, ducking under low branches and carving access through the forest with a machete where the tangled mass of branches around them became denser and lower.
Suddenly, Dean paused; he heard something that wasn't the crack and rustle of Sam smashing his way forward. "Sam," he called quietly; "stop a minute."
Sam froze, mid-hack and glanced round at Dean. Not-Bobby stopped and hovered lazily above his head.
All three of them exchanged a glance when they heard the sound that Dean had picked up on.
"Must be a river or stream or something," Sam mused.
"Yeah," Dean shrugged in agreement; "whatever, this is good, we can give the horses a drink."
Not-Bobby glanced between the brothers; "we need to keep movin'," he whispered, a sense of urgency behind the words; "give the horses a drink, but make it a quick one."
A few minutes on, the brothers forged through a particularly thick patch of undergrowth to find the source of the noise; a wide, swiftly flowing river with a low, ramshackle bridge across it.
"We'll need to use the bridge," Dean announced, pulling his feet out of the stirrups and sliding clumsily down off of Beauty's back; "that current's way too strong to risk riding the horses across."
Sam slid down from his giant mule and nodded in agreement as they led their animals down to the water to drink.
"Boys," a little voice came from behind them; "I don't like this, be careful; there's something bad about that bridge, look."
Leaving the horses to drink, the brothers turned and crouched, peering into the dark shadows beneath the bridge's algae-slicked underside. It took a moment before their eyes adapted to the darkness enough to make out some scattered shapes, but they gasped in horror as they realised the detritus they saw through the gloom was a cache of discarded bones and grossly mis-shapen armour.
"I think some of your predecessors may have met a sticky end at this bridge," Not-Bobby whispered, tugging urgently at the ear flap of Sam's cap, in an effort to encourage movement away from the river.
"A stinky end too," Dean snorted with a grimace; "this place frickin' reeks," he added, holding his nose for dramatic effect.
The brothers stood, musing over the gruesome debris under the bridge when Dean noticed Beauty stomping down the river bank toward the bridge.
He lunged toward her; "hey, hey, wait, we need to check this out first," he gasped as he grabbed her reins. She snorted disapprovingly, tossing her head as she pawed the ground. Dean didn't speak horse, but he didn't have to to know that look said; 'well get the hell on with it then'.
Dean led her back up the river bank; "you're a woman alright," he grunted; "won't be friggin' told."
Sam glanced back at his mule, seemingly the only member of their party unconcerned by developments, as he munched contentedly on a patch of bulrushes.
"We need to go," Not-Bobby coaxed urgently.
"What do you think?" Sam asked; "I'm kinda with the faerie," he added.
Dean nodded hesitantly; "yeah, we'll deal with trouble if it turns up, but no point goin' looking for it."
He stumbled forward as Beauty snorted impatiently and butted him heavily in the back.
"Okay, okay," grunted Dean, glaring at Beauty; "quit naggin', we're movin' on."
Not-Bobby nodded keenly and buzzed toward the bridge, glancing behind him to ensure the brothers and their respective mounts were following.
They had barely approached the bridge when all three together with their horses stopped in their tracks.
The bridge gave a threatening lurch, and a long, wet groan echoed from beneath it.
The brothers watched in fascinated horror as a huge, ungainly body, twice as tall as Sam and four times as wide, uncurled from beneath the bridge, releasing a foul, malodorous stench as it moved. It shambled out into the river and draped its fat bulk over the side of the bridge, effectively blocking access. Its slimy grey hide glistened like wet suede as its wide, lipless mouth smacked and slavered from under its wrinkled, pendulous jowls. Tiny, bloodshot eyes fixed on the Winchesters and glimmered with a visceral hunger.
"Hey Dean," Sam spoke cautiously without taking his eyes off the foul creature in front of them; "of course, I don't know for sure," he began; "but unless I'm mistaken, I think we got ourselves a troll."