Percival rode slightly behind the King’s sturdily built horse, mostly because of the width of the lane. It was meant to be travelled on in double file, but Thoris took up so much of the road that only a stick bug could get by him. It amazed Percival that the King had even been able to get on the horse, and it was incredible that the horse could actually carry the King.
The road came to a river, which it followed for a way and then crossed at a bridge. The bridge, unfortunately, was blocked. It amused Percival that he had chosen the time period that knights were asking for tolls.
“You pay, you cross,” said the knight loudly. His armor was very dark, almost black. His helmet was closed so his face couldn’t be seen.
“Who are you?” asked Percival before Thoris could answer. “No, let me guess—the Black Knight?”
The knight roared. “I am not the Black Knight! I am the Not-So-Black Knight! You see this armor?” He banged on his chest, making a tinny sound. “It’s dark brown! It is not black! My cousin took the last set of black armor. I had to make do with brown, and everyone assumes I’m my cousin!”
“I pity you,” said Percival. “Sorry for the mistake. Can we cross?”
“You pay, you cross.”
“You said that.”
Thoris leaned over to whisper in Percival’s ear. “We pay, we cross.”
“He already said that,” said Percival in a like tone. “Can’t we pay without crossing—I mean, cross without paying? I don’t have any money.”
“You said you wouldn’t,” said Thoris.
“Wait,” said Percival, staying the King’s arm from reaching into his pocket. “Can I challenge him?”
“You’re not a knight.”
“Who’s to know?”
“If you want to challenge, go ahead. I should have brought along some buckets to carry you home in.”
“I am immortal, you know,” said Percival. He urged his horse forward. Raising his voice, he called, “I challenge you, Not-So-Black Knight!” He took a gauntlet from his coat and threw it onto the bridge between them. “Single combat. I win, we cross. I lose, I dead. He pay, he cross. Deal?”
“Sure,” drawled the knight. “Don’t you want armor?”
“Not really,” said Percival. “What weapons?”
“Whatever we’ve got,” said the knight, gesturing at the pile of weapons bound to his horse. He dismounted laboriously and clanked toward Percival.
Percival rummaged in his coat and brought out a nine-volt battery. He stuck it on his tongue and jerked away. “It works,” he muttered, then stepped forward.
The knight drew his sword and imitated a horizontal guillotine. Percival stood and took the blow, only staggering slightly into the bridge railing.
Percival grinned at the stunned knight and jabbed his breastplate with the battery. A spark flew and the knight began dancing around in place, his armor slightly charged.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” said the knight, then tipped over the side of the bridge into the water.
“Very smart,” said Thoris, bringing Percival’s horse to him. “By rights you can take all his effects.” The King gestured at the laden horse.
“I’m not dead yet,” shouted the knight from the river beneath them.
Percival ignored him and led the way across the bridge.
“They’ve been exploiting the Phils for a while now,” said Thoris as they rode. “The Not-So-Black Knights, that is. None of them have truly black armor, but all of them are proud, though slightly miffed, because of it.”
“How have they exploited you?”
“Tolls like the one you saw, general bullying like the three that’ll pop out of the bushes in about a mile and try to mug us, and—“
All of a sudden a knight in full armor appeared in a tree with his visor up, making faces at them.
“And insults, like that one,” Thoris finished.
The knight, seeing Thoris point at him, put his gauntlets on the base of his cuirass. “It’s not polite to point,” he called down at them.
He disappeared less than a minute later when Percival threw a club at him.
Liam was hiding behind a shield on the walltop. Tied to the shield with duct tape was a speaking trumpet, the mouth of which was elongated by a flexible plastic tube.
“Truce!” Liam shouted through the tube. He pulled a string next to him and a white flag shot from its casing to fly from the shield. “Truce!” he shouted again. “I’d like to speak to the Aardvark.”
Within minutes the barrage of arrows against his shield had ceased. He poked his head out and drew back quickly, a stray arrow coming fractions from his nose. “Ceasefire,” he called into the trumpet. “Armistice! Cessation of hostilities!”
“No need to quote your lexicon at us, sir,” called a voice from the base of the wall. Liam stepped from behind his shield and looked down. A man in dirty clothes (How would one get dirty on a cloud, Liam wondered) stood there looking up. “I’m the Aardvark’s herald. You are…?”
“Liam, Head Phil.”
“Oh. Ah.” The man seemed at a loss for words, shifting from foot to foot. Eventually he made a clumsy half-bow. “The Aardvark speaks of you often, sir.”
“Hatefully, I suppose?”
“No, sir, with admiration.”
Liam shrugged. “I can’t blame him. In any case, I’d like to negotiate a ceasefire.”
“Yes, a ‘cessation of hostilities’, as you said. The Aardvark says he wouldn’t object to that.”
“Indeed he does.”
“I would like to speak with him personally.”
“I will see if it is satisfactory,” said the herald, retiring into the ranks. Ten minutes later he was back. “Very good, sir. The Aardvark shall give you the audience you requested. If you will come down…”
“If you will assure me of my safety…” said Liam.
“Of course.” The herald whispered to the men in his immediate vicinity: “Don’t kill him yet, pass it on.”
“Comforting,” muttered Liam. He ran down the wall steps and crossed to the sliding door. He turned a key in the lock Quirk had applied to the doors and walked out of the Castle Under the Cloud. After turning and locking the doors again, he followed the herald through the aisle between medieval soldiers toward the tents in the distance.
The Aardvark’s tent was by far the largest. With a bright orange coloring, it was also by far the most eye-catching. Liam had to hold his lunch down as he averted his eyes from the brightly hued cloth.
“Presenting, The Aardvark!” shouted the herald. A cheer went up from the men around them as the flaps of the tent drew back to reveal a blackness, startling against the bright orange. The legs and upper body of a man emerged, but the face stayed shadowed.
“Hello, Liam,” said the Aardvark. “You must forgive the display, but you know I have a weakness for dramatic reveals.”
“Indeed, Percival. Good to see you again.”
Percival stepped completely out of the tent. Though dressed in medieval-style clothes, he was no worse for his time travelling. “Good to see you too. It’s been much longer for me.”
“We have much to talk about. Inside?” Liam gestured toward the Castle behind him.
“My men won’t like that,” said Percival. “But here is fine.” He led the way into his tent.
Blinking from the sudden lack of orange, Liam looked around at the inside of the tent as Percival closed and secured the flaps. The tent had sparse furnishings. A table covered in equipment stood slightly off-center, having to make way for the central tent pole. A cot lay on the other side of the pole. He lowered himself into a chair as Percival did the same. “Nice place,” said Liam. “Quite an improvement on your Castle quarters.”
Percival grimaced. “I couldn’t have come directly back. It’s complicated. The men expect things of me, calling me the Aardvark. I can’t just disappear and rejoin you. I’m sorry. I got them into this time period, so I must get them what they want and get them back to where they came from.”
“What do they want?”
“That’s complicated too. So far they’ve been content with being angry at the Castle—“
“And the Phils. They broke Gologer’s wing, you know.”
“From what I hear he dropped a few on their heads. They’re fine, being as immortal in the future as I was in the past.”
“Oh, that’s good. But Gologer is far from fine,” growled Liam.
“I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t know about it until hours later.”
“I thought you were the leader.”
“Just like I thought you were the leader of the Phils. I’m not this rabble’s leader any more than you are the Phils’ leader.”
“But I am the Phils leader.”
“Can you control what they say? What they do? I saw that last Phil Conference you did on your blog, even though I wasn’t a part of it—could you control how Sebase threw that pencil into Quirk’s ear? If you could have, why didn’t you stop it? Why didn’t you stop Feiron from getting stabbed? You aren’t their leader, Liam. You’re just their head.”
“Nevertheless, I’m the only one real out of all of them—you, I mean.”
Percival sighed. “There, you have me. The only difference between me and this mob is that I know the world around us. That and I’m completely mortal again.”
Liam nodded. “The sooner you can get back to the Phils, the better as far as I’m concerned.”
“Ah, yes. That’s the thing. See, I promised the army—“
“I’m not going to give up the Castle Under the Cloud! We got it practically for free, I’m not going to let that go to waste!”
“That’s not what I was saying. But I did promise them something…”
Liam looked wary. “What is it?”
“Nothing difficult. Ralph could probably do it, and if all else fails we can just pick someone off the streets of Detroit. No one would miss him.”
“What do they need?”
“So you’re suggesting we just pluck someone random and let this army slaughter them? What do they need a sacrifice for?”
“They’re medieval. They need a sacrifice in order to sneeze.”
“Some do. Some just get by with spitting on the ground and slapping their elbows.”
“Well, these are a little more superstitious. They use that little rite for when they stub their toes.”
“But these people are sneezing?”
“No. It’s something else too complicated for me to understand. The guy explaining it had a bad case of verbal dyslexia. Confusing syllables and all that.”
Liam leaned back in his chair. “We’ll find someone. Preferably not a civilian, but we’ll find someone. How is the sacrifice conducted?”
“I think it was burning at the stake. Or maybe it was drowning in the lake, I’m not sure.”
“I’ve got a good idea of who’ll be sacrificed, never fear.”