Following an uncomfortable night recovering from Dean's ordeal in the lake, the Winchesters; cold, aching, hungry and sleep deprived, were dismayed to discover they were barely halfway through the Wildwoods and, according to Not-Bobby's instructions, needed to get their asses moving faster to make the edge of the dismal, sprawling forest by sundown.
Sam glanced across at his mule who stood leaning idly against a tree casually munching on a dead bush, and pondered briefly that he'd be lucky to get that ass moving at all without the aid of a cattle-prod and a favourable tailwind.
Not-Bobby for his part had been as helpful as he was able. Along with Beauty, their little faerie guardian had watched over the exhausted Winchesters as they attempted to sleep on the unyielding dampness of the forest floor and, despite the fact that his faerie magic was stifled by the oppressive evil that pervaded the dismal murk of the Wildwoods, he had even managed to rustle up enough power to change a small collection of stray pinecones into apples for their breakfast. At one memorable attempt, he had even managed a peach, but such was the effort required, he'd to go and lie down afterwards.
On the little faerie's insistence that they 'pick up the pace', the Winchesters duly obliged, and were swiftly presented with a new problem.
Beauty's idea of 'picking up the pace' was to launch into a wild, headlong gallop that would have put the Pony Express to shame. Plunging effortlessly through the forest she completely ignored her panic-stricken rider who was hanging half out of her saddle, clinging round her neck like a monkey up a stick, newly-repaired breastplate rattling furiously with the rapid beat of her hooves, and screaming 'for the love of God, slow the hell down y' crazy bitch' at the top of his lungs.
The mule's idea of 'pick up the pace' was to stop and eat every four strides instead of every three.
Finally, Beauty deigned to stop only as she began to tire, and Dean found himself and his headstrong mount standing in an unfamiliar stretch of forest miles ahead of Sam, his mule and Not-Bobby.
Slipping down out of the saddle he stood shakily on legs like water, resisting the urge to kiss the ground and glared at Beauty through eyes glazed with the adrenaline hit of a near-death experience. He scraped a shaking hand through his windblown hair, dislodging a collection of leaves, loose twigs and one traumatised caterpillar.
Beauty stared levelly back at him with an expression that spelled out 'you steaming great girl' in big pink sparkly letters.
"Where the hell are we?"
Scanning the forest all around him, Dean could see that this particular patch of the Wildwoods was far thicker and more verdant than any they had seen before, the trees lusher, somehow more alive.
He glanced back as he picked his way apprehensively through the dense tangle of trees, to see if Beauty was following him, and paused as his belly gave a long, pained gurgle which seemed to echo melodically within his breastplate.
"Freakin' stupid fairytale forests," he snorted with a frown; "where's a gingerbread cottage when you need one?"
Beauty carefully reached up with her long, elegant neck and clutched a branch in her teeth, pulling it down toward her and stripping it of leaves in one smooth, effortless motion. She turned to stare directly at Dean with an expression expertly calculated to cause maximum aggravation as she chewed calmly.
"Y'know, you're really pushin' your luck considerin' you're edible," Dean snorted with a sigh and leaned back against a tree, sliding down until he was sitting on the mossy slope of its roots.
"M'gonna take a nap while we wait for Sam," he grunted, closing his eyes, then opening one to glance up at Beauty. "You may as well friggin' earn your lunch and watch over me, so I don't get eaten by some damn goblin or the Easter bunny or whatever the heck else freaky crap lives in this forest."
Dean folded his arms behind his head and soon felt himself drifting off, soothed by the whisper of the breeze through the emerald ceiling of the tree canopy and Beauty's soft champing as she availed herself of the abundant feast this part of the forest offered.
Dean's reverie didn't last long and he woke with a start when he felt something narrow and rigid suddenly move beneath his ass.
"What the … ?" he jerked forward; "Are there bugs here? Have I got a bug up my ass?"
Before he even had a chance to scramble to his feet, he felt it again. "Sonofabitch … I've jus' 'been probed – something jabbed me in my ass!"
He leapt upright, rubbing his assaulted cheek. A closer inspection showed that it wasn't a bug, not even any kind of animal, but a roaming tendril of the tree he was leaning against.
He cocked his head as he crouched to get a closer look, and gasped as he felt another tendril moving, this time wrapping itself around his ankle; "what the hell?"
Hopping backwards, he wildly tried to shake it free, but it held fast.
He reached down to his scabbard to draw his sword but another tendril coiled down, grabbing his arm, and tugging it safely away from his sword. Another, then another joined it, wrapping round his legs and his waist, reeling him in toward the tree trunk.
Dean fought furiously as more and more tendrils coiled around him; "get your goddamn creepers off me you sonofa … a-a … bush."
The more Dean struggled and lashed out, the more tendrils and twigs descended on him, wrapping him up tighter and tighter, pinning him to the tree trunk like some unfortunate fly wrapped in spider silk. He grimaced and squirmed as he felt encroaching tendrils working their way inside his armour; up inside his breastplate, and down the greaves around his legs,
"Nghhhh," he bucked and strained hard against the bonds that were still around him; "get off me, dammit."
Letting out a distressed whinny, Beauty turned, bolting off back in the direction they had come, but Dean didn't see her leave as more tendrils closed around his face, effectively blindfolding him. He hoped she had gone to find Sam. Dean was beyond helping himself now, he couldn't even struggle; he was simply plastered helplessly to the tree trunk.
His muffled curses were lost behind a thick twig that had closed across his mouth in the manner of a gag, but not for long as he bit down hard on it, smirking when he felt it recoil and jerk away from his face. He stretched his jaw for a moment then let loose with a tirade of obscenities.
His voice trailed off as he heard a woman's voice speak up.
"You will not speak that way toward the dryads."
Dean blinked as the tendrils across his face withdrew allowing him to see again. He really kinda wished they hadn't.
The woman that stood before him was a tree. Or at least she had once been a tree. Or she just looked like one … or whatever. She was a dryad.
Her naked body was a tree trunk, slim and beautifully contoured in all the right places, but still a tree trunk. Large round knots scarred the bark and formed two intense black eyes that bored deep into Dean's own shock-glazed bulging eyes, making him squirm; the voluminous mass of hair that floated around her head and cascaded down her back was not hair at all, but leaves, rich and green and as innumerable as raindrops in a spring shower.
Yep, she was a tree. Dean had pissed off a tree.
"Well, I guess I'll speak that way seein' as you've attacked me an' tied me up," Dean snorted, trying to cover his fear with anger; "why the heck are you attacking me?"
"Men like you rape the earth for stones and build castles without a thought for the creatures you dislodge and kill; your people have come into the forest and torn my sisters down, slicing their limbs apart and making fires from their dying bodies. You are destroyers and plunderers and you will pay the price for the cruelty and arrogance of your people just as those who came through the forest before you have done.
"You killed those other dudes?" Dean growled, wincing as the tendrils tightened around his arms.
"It was necessary," the dryad replied flatly, "you must understand; it was necessary."
"But what about my friggin' horse?" Dean snapped; "she was eatin' you and you aren't tying her up!"
"She is a being of nature," the dryad smiled beatifically; "we live in a beautiful symbiosis with the creatures of the earth and the air; we gladly feed them and accommodate them."
"You are not a being of nature," she added.
"Oh, I'm freakin' sorr …"
Dean's voice croaked into silence as he felt the tendrils tightening, around his arms and legs, but more concerningly around his chest and neck. He began to gasp for air.
"When you are dead, your bones will nourish the forest and you will forever have our gratitude."
Dean wiggled against his bonds, gritting his teeth as he bunched his shoulders, flexing his biceps to try to break free of the tendrils, but their hold on him was too strong.
He felt his vision beginning to dim as the tendrils tightened further, and his mind began to fill with fog. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, a continuous rhythmic cadence growing louder and louder. Dean was simply too disorientated to realise that the sound he heard wasn't his heartbeat, it was hoofbeats.
Beauty went from 'frantic gallop' to 'stop' in the space of two strides and slid to a halt across the forest floor dislodging a riot of dust and deadfall around her, as Sam leapt off her back brandishing an axe.
"Let him go you bitch," Sam yelled towards the dryad who stepped back nervously, her face an inscrutable mixture of fear, anger and regret.
He glared at the dryad and turned back to see Dean's predicament, furiously swinging the axe toward the tree that held him, close enough to Dean's arm to elicit a flinch and a pained whimper from his brother.
The axe struck with a hollow crack, dislodging whirling splinters of tree bark, and carving a deep, narrow wedge out of the trunk, severing several of the tendrils that held Dean. The tree shook violently, at the onslaught and the tendrils began to retract whipping away from Dean's body. Eventually, after three more well-aimed strikes of Sam's axe, Dean's bonds loosened enough for him to drop limply away from the tree to his knees, holding his grazed neck and gasping for air.
"C'mon," Not-Bobby prompted the brothers, we can't hang around; we gotta keep movin'. These damn dryads will try again if we hang about."
Sam dragged Dean up by the arm and together they stumbled along the narrow track which threaded a winding route through the trees with Beauty cantering after them and Not-Bobby bringing up the rear, goading the unwilling mule into something resembling a trot.
As they piled desperately through the forest, a grasping latticework of branches reached out over them, snatching and clutching at the little band, vicious leaf-tipped branches, and narrow, coiling tendrils whipping across their faces, tugging and pulling. There was a rip as one latched on to Sam's jerkin, tearing the sleeve off; but eventually, the little band found themselves in far a less dense part of the forest, with trees that thankfully seemed a lot less animated.
Not-Bobby fluttered around cautiously, examining the trees until he seemed satisfied; "nope, these ain't dryads, "he announced with a smart nod; "these are jus' trees."
The brothers stood, shoulder to shoulder as they doubled over, bracing their hands on their knees, panting with the exertion of their rapid escape. "If I never see another friggin' forest as long as I live, it won't be long enough," Dean grumbled, rubbing his grazed neck; "Now, I'm hungry, tired AND sore."
"Yeah well," Sam added, standing up straight and walking away, "I'm all those things too … and I need a pee as well."
He stomped over to a mighty tree trunk, fiddling with the laces on his breeches as he went.
"Gimme a sec," he called over his shoulder as he planted his feet wide and stood facing the mossy bark, "I'm just gonna water this tree."
Dean turned as he heard a gasp and saw Not-Bobby hanging in mid-air, eyes wide, and mouth agape with obvious horror.
"Sam," he croaked; "that's not a tree."
"It's not a friggin' dryad?" Dean snorted, reaching for his sword.
The little faerie shook his head mutely; "no, it's a goddamn leg!"