Sitting slumped on a fallen tree stump, Dean winced as Sam stood behind him, working hard to jemmy him out of his dented armour.
A little way along the riverbank, the gutted carcass of the fallen troll tainted the air with a stinking fug that smelled, according to Dean, worse than every cadaver the Winchesters had ever exhumed piled up on a hot day and roasted in chicken shit. He was painfully aware that having been liberally slathered in a cocktail of various troll fluids, his own personal aroma was equally anti-social.
Not-Bobby was keeping himself at a safe distance, having gotten too close just once; Dean had never seen a faerie puke before, he never really wanted to again.
Beauty was also keeping her distance. Standing upwind, she glared at Dean with a combination of revulsion and social embarrassment; even Sam's mule had decided to move as far away as possible before the foul stink interfered with his appetite.
Only Sam; faithful squire Sam, was dutifully standing over Dean, blinking watering eyes and working hard to remove the damaged armour, not to mention working even harder to avoid vomiting down the back of Dean's neck.
Eventually the dented breastplate came away with a pained creak and Dean sucked in a deep breath, groaning as his bruised chest protested.
He turned, and Sam recoiled violently as a waft of troll turned with him.
"I guess this is your first job as my squire," Dean sighed, staring down sadly at the dented armour as he wiped a forearm across his slime-stained forehead; "you can help me clean up too."
"No way dude," Sam choked; "I'll hammer the dent out of your armour, no problem; but my job description doesn't run to wiping troll-snot off of your face. You're on your own there, bro'."
Dean huffed petulantly, "well I can't go off and rescue fair damsel smelling like a troll's ass," he moaned; "and even if I could, the friggin' horse won't let me anywhere near her." He glanced up accusingly at Beauty who stared defiantly back at him, wrinkling her nose in disgust without a hint of guilt.
"Go an' wash up in the river," Sam suggested patiently as he rummaged through the mule's saddlebags for the tools he would need.
Dean glared at the back of Sam's head and stomped off huffily; "this river's current's freakin' deadly," he snorted; "you'll regret it when my broken, drowned body gets washed ashore thirty miles upstream."
"Don't get your leather boots wet, water stains are hell to shift," was the sum total of Sam's response.
Dean walked slowly down the riverbank listening as the 'ding-ding-ding' of Sam hammering his armour back into shape receded into the distance. As he scanned the river for a suitable place to stop and clean up, his eye caught a tiny sparkle through the trees.
Cautiously he wandered away from the river, following the teasing glint of light, to find a large lake in a clearing among the trees. The rare sunlight was dazzling against the forest's usual gloom as it shimmered and danced on the lake's surface.
Dean smiled at the welcoming gleam of the cool, fresh water. He'd found his bathtub.
Kicking off his boots, he shucked the gambeson and rinsed it in the water at the lake's edge, hanging it over a low branch to dry. That done, he unlaced his breeches, tossing them aside until he was standing on the shifting shingle around the lake's deserted bank in just his underwear.
He squinted through the sunlight as he scanned the water, crystalline bright, and as still as a mirror. He could see small fish drifting lazily beneath the ripples caused by their movement and pondskaters darting around on the lake's twinkling surface. Beside him, a tangle of yellow and white orchids clung to water's lapping edges.
This place was a little oasis of purity and calm in this foul, evil place.
Pulling off his socks, Dean took a tentative step into the lake, shuddering as the cold, fresh water embraced his bare feet.
He waded deeper into the lake, gasping at the chill of the water around his knees, then his thighs, goosebumps erupting across his skin as he ventured into deeper water, further and further away from the bank . Eventually, he took a deep breath and allowed himself to fall forward, immersing his torso into the frigid water, letting out a breathy yelp as the water closed over his shoulders and he pushed forward into a slow breaststroke.
Gradually, the cold water began to feel less like ice-cold knives tearing into his bare skin, and more like skilled fingers, cleansing and refreshing his bruised and sullied body. He pulled in another slow deep breath, relishing the feeling of his lungs opening up as the cold shock of entering the water receded and along with it the fetid stink of troll.
He ducked his head beneath the surface, cleansing his face and hair, and couldn't help but offer a whispered apology to the fish for rocking up and tainting their pretty lake with stinky troll fluids but hey, needs must when a troll drips on your face and you've got a smokin' hot damsel to impress, huh?
Time passed, and Dean watched fat white clouds drifting across a cornflour-blue sky as he worked his way across the lake at a lazy backstroke. Relaxed and refreshed, if it wasn't for this hot chick needing help, Dean would have been content to stay here forever; or at least until he succumbed to hypothermia.
However, his brief moment of calm was rudely interrupted when the top of his head suddenly butted into something very firm and very big behind him.
With a gasp and an untidy flailing of limbs, he flipped over in the water onto his belly. He spluttered and blinked through the splashing water, glancing up to look at the obstacle that had halted his progress.
He found himself staring up at an elegant black head crowned by a long silky forelock curling over intelligent brown eyes which gazed at him from under long dark lashes. The creature's strong neck arched downward, into an affectionate nod, letting out a warm snort from a delicate, velvety-soft muzzle.
Dean grinned as the midnight-dark figure loomed over him in the water, the satin sheen of her gleaming jet-black coat reflecting the sunlight like polished silver.
"So, I'm forgiven am I?" He smiled, patting her shoulder; "now that I don't stink, you wanna know me again?"
Beauty pawed the bed of the lake, the frigid water splashing around her slender legs and she lowered her head, nuzzling Dean's shoulder before gently butting him so that he stumbled backwards, almost falling ass-first into the lake.
"Hey, mind the merchandise," he chuckled; "it's already damaged goods after Jabba the friggin' Hutt flattened it."
He found his footing again, and leaned into the horse, rubbing a cool palm along her long flat forehead.
Dean's head whipped round, hearing Sam's sharp voice on the other side of the lake and saw his brother, wide-eyed with fear, standing on the bank. Close beside him, the fat mule chomped happily at the lush grass, seemingly unmoved by proceedings as the little glowing dot of Not-Bobby hovered over its back. What concerned Dean the most, however, was what Dean could see standing at Sam's other side ...
"Dean, get away from it," Sam cried frantically; "it's a kelpie, Beauty sensed it; get outta the lake, it's deadly."
Dean's head swivelled back to look up at the horse standing beside him, and immediately it's liquid brown eyes flashed vivid red. They were the last thing he saw before it bared its teeth, and with unnatural speed, clutched his shoulder, dragging him down toward the deepest water out in the centre of the lake.
Sam cried out Dean's name again as he saw his brother disappear under the water, and dashed forward, wildly pounding through the water until it became too deep for him to run, and he could only move forward at a laboured, lurching hobble.
Not-Bobby swooped after him, finding the spot where Dean disappeared and circling it, searching greedily for signs of life like a hungry gull.
As Sam plunged through the thigh-deep water, he was almost bowled over as a large black shape thundered past him. Half-galloping, half-swimming, Beauty's powerful legs churned the water into foam. She gradually slowed as the water became too deep for her to go any further, letting out a furious snort toward the point where Dean had disappeared and followed it up with a bitter neigh that tore across the sunlit sky, echoing through the trees around them.
She stood motionless, immersed up to her haunches, watching as the water in the centre of the lake began to rumble. A bulging circular ripple, it began to spread outwards, foaming and bubbling furiously, rising higher and higher until the kelpie slowly emerged from the centre of it. Through it all, Beauty stood her ground, watching intently as the creature rose up to meet her.
Sam watched transfixed as Beauty called out again; a chilling, bitter sound that made his blood run cold, and the kelpie, an ethereal spirit horse in its real form, composed of nothing but running water, strode over the surface of the lake toward her.
"One faerie horse against another," Not-Bobby whispered in quiet awe; "it's answered her call."
Paying no attention to his faerie companion, Sam began to lumber clumsily through the water toward the point where the kelpie had emerged, his chest tight with panic until he saw Dean's head break the surface, arms flailing as he gasped and choked.
Swimming out toward his brother, Sam grasped Dean under the arms and pulled him back though the water. His actions went ignored by the two horses as they stood, one in the water, one on it, and faced each other in what was looking to be an intensely hostile standoff.
Beauty's ears were flat against her head, her teeth bared, the whites of her eyes stark against her black coat as she glared up intently into the kelpie's haunting, colourless eyes. She took a slow step backwards through the water as the sinister creature loomed above her and took a step forward.
"B-Beauty," Dean spluttered, coughing wetly as he slumped limply on the bank of the lake in the V of his brother's legs. He was barely aware of Sam sitting behind him and placing his own thick jerkin over his wet shoulders; "help her," he pleaded, lurching forward and puking up another mouthful of water as Sam aimed a heavy slap between his shoulder blades.
They watched in fearful anticipation as the kelpie advanced again across the surface of the lake, and Beauty took another step back through the water.
"No," Not-Bobby muttered quietly, "wait …"
The kelpie advanced again, tossing its translucent head and snorting a fine watery mist, forcing Beauty to backpedal again; all the time never breaking eye-contact with the creature. They could see her haunches gradually emerging from the water as it became shallower with every step backwards she took
"She's in trouble," Sam snapped; "we've got to help her."
"No, wait, " the little faerie allowed a smile to creep across his face, "she knows exactly what she's doing ..."
The kelpie's eyes glowed red as it stepped forward once again, bearing down on Beauty who was forced to retreat further, then further still, until she was forced up onto the loose shingle at the lake's bank.
The brothers held their breath, barely blinking as the standoff continued and Beauty, now finally at the same level as the kelpie, continued to defy it, despite retreating further and further back with every stride.
Suddenly, she tossed her head arrogantly, breaking eye contact, and stepped aside, allowing the kelpie to see that it had pushed her far up onto the bank of the lake and, in doing so, it stood with its own two front feet on the ground.
It recoiled, letting out a forlorn squeal and thrashed pathetically before bursting into a massive plume of water that rained down onto Beauty and the ground around her before trickling harmlessly back into the lake.
"It's a water spirit," Not-Bobby explained breathlessly to the shocked Winchesters; "it can't exist on dry land."
"Our girl tricked it," he added with a proud grin.
Dean scraped his soaked hair back off of his forehead and his wet face lifted into a grin as he watched the elegant black mare standing on the edge of the lake, looking across at the three men, waiting casually for their adulation.
"Sam," he croaked, glancing up at his brother as he burrowed back into the thick jerkin; "I think I'm in love with a horse."