Welcome to Andre Norton's Reading Corner

 

andre norton storyteller 1948

Andre the Librarian hosting "Story Time" at the Cleveland Public Library ~ 1948

 

"Come on In! . . .Take a Seat! . . . and Settle Down! . . ."

As we share with you a tale by one of the leading story tellers of the past century.

Twice a Month (on the 1st and the 16th) We are going to post an original story by Andre Norton

During the showcase period you will be able to read it here free of charge.

Many were only published once.

So it's a sure thing that there's going to be a few you have never heard of.

The order will be rather random in hopes you return often.

Happy Reading!




 

London Bridge

by Andre Norton

last spell

 

1st Published ~ The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct. (1973), Edited by Edward L. Ferman, Published by Mercury Press, Mag., $0.75, 162pg ~ cover by Jacqui Morgan

 

Last Printing in English ~ Tales from High Hallack vol. 1 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge

 

Bibliography Page - London Bridge



  

"JUST another deader---" Sim squatted to do a search.

Me, I don't dig deaders much. No need to. There're plenty of den-ins and stores to rummage if you need a pricker or some cover-ups. Of course, I took that stunner I found by what was left of the dead Fuzz's hand. But that was different, he wasn't wearing it. Good shooter too; I got more'n a dozen con-rats before it burned out on me. Now I didn't want to waste any time over a deader, and I said so, loud and clear.

Sim told me to cool the air. He came back with a little tube in his hand. I took one look at that and gave him a sidesweep, took his wrist at just the right angle. The tube flew as straight as a beam across the stalled wiggle-walk and into a blow duct.

"Now what in blue boxes did you want to do that for?" Sim demanded. Not that he squared up to me over it. By now he knows he can't take me and it's no use to try. "I could have traded that to an Up---real red crowns and about ten of them!"

"What trade? Those hazeheads haven't got anything we want and can't get for ourselves."

"Sure, sure. But it's kinda fun showing them a haul like that and seeing 'em get all hot."

"Try it once too often and you'll take a pricker where it won't do you any good. Anyway, we're not here to scrounge."

The city's big. I don't know anybody who's ever gotten all over it. You could walk your feet raw trying since all the wiggle-walks cut out. And some of it's deathtraps---what with Ups who have lost any thinking stuff which ever was between their dirty ears, or con-rats. Those get bigger and bolder every time we have a roundup to kill them off. The arcs have shut off in a lot of places, and we use flashes. But those don't show much and they die awfully quick. So we don't go off the regular paths much. Except because of this matter of the Rhyming Man, which was why Sim and I were trailing now. I didn't much like the look ahead. A lot of arcs were gone, and the shadows were thick between those which were left. Anything could hide in a doorway or window to jump us.

We're immune, of course, or we wouldn't be kicking around at all. When the last plague hit, it carried off most of the cits. All the oldies went. I must have been nine---ten---I don't know. You forget about time where the ticks can tell you the hour but not the day or year. I had a good tick on my wrist right now, but it couldn't tell me what day it was, or how many years had gone by. I grew a lot, and sometimes when I got a fit to do something different, I went to the lib and cut into one of the teachers. Most of the T-casts there didn't make much sense. But I'd found a couple in the histro-division on primitives (whatever those were) which had some use. There was Fanna---she got excited about some casts which taught you about how to take care of someone who got hurt. Because of that Sim was walking beside me today. But, as I say, most of the stuff on the tapes was useless to us now.

There are twenty of us, or were 'til the Rhyming Man came around. Some don't remember how it was before the plague. They were too young then. And none of us remember back to before the pollut-die-off. Some of us have paired off for den-in---Lacy and Norse, Bet and Tim. But me, I'm not taking to den-in with some fem yet. There's too much to see and do, and a guy wants to be free to take off when he feels like it. Course I have to keep an eye on Marsie. She's my sister---she was just a baby in the plague days---and she's still young enough to be a nuisance---like believing in the Rhyming Man. Like he's something out of a tape, I mean---that he's going to take good children Outside.

Maybe there was an Outside once. There's so much about it in the tapes, and why would anyone want to spend good time making up a lot of lies and taping them? But to go Outside---no one has for longer than I've been around.

Marsie, she's like me, she digs the tapes. I can take her with me, and she'll sit quiet, not getting up and running out like most littles just when I get interested. No, she'll sit quiet with a teacher. I found some tapes of made-up stories---they showed the Outside and animals moving on their own and making noises before you squeezed them. Marsie, she had a fur cat I found and she lugged it everywhere. She wanted it to come alive and kept thinking she could find a way to make it. Kept asking Fanna how you could do that. Littles get awfully set on things sometimes and near burn your ears out asking why---why---why---

That was before the Rhyming Man. We heard about him later. Our territory runs to the double wiggle-walk on Balor, and there we touch on Bart's crowd's hangout. They're like us---not Ups. Once in a while we have a rap-sing with them. We get together for con-rat roundups and things like that. But we don't live cheek by cheek. Well, some time back Bart came over on a mission---a real important search. He had this weirdo story about a couple of their littles going off with the Rhyming Man.

Seems like one of his ferns saw part of it. She must have been solid clear through between the ears not to guess it was trouble. She heard his singing first, and she thought someone was running a tape, only it didn't sound right. Said the littles were poking around down in the streets---she could see them through a window. All of a sudden they stood up and stopped what they were doing, then went running off. She didn't think of it again---because Bart's crowd's like us, they don't have any Ups in their territory. He keeps scouts out to make sure of that.

But when it came feed time, those two didn't show. Then the fem shoots out what she saw and heard. So they send out a mission, armed. Though Bart couldn't see how Ups could have got through.

Those littles, they never did find them. And the next day two more were gone. Bart rounded them up, kept them under cover. But three more went and with them the fem he had set with a stunner on guard. So now he wanted to know what gives, and if we had anything to tell him. He was really sky climbing and shadow watching by the time he got to us. Said now a couple more fems were missing. But he had two guys who had seen the Rhyming Man.

What Bart told us sounded like an Up was loose. But for an Up to do the same thing all the time, that wasn't in curve at all. Seems he wore this bright suit---all sparkling---and danced along singing and waving. Bart's boys took straight shots at him (with burners). And they swore that the rays just bounced off him, didn't even shake him.

We organized for a roundup quick and combed as much as you can comb with all the den-ins up and down. There was nothing at all. Only, when we came back---two more littles were gone. So Bart's crowd packed up and moved over to our side of the double wiggle-path and settled in a block front, downside from our place. But he was tearing mad, and now he spent most of his time over in his old territory hunting. He was like an Up with a new tube of pills, thinking only of one thing, getting the Rhyming Man.

Though right now I could understand it, how he felt, I mean, because Marsie was gone. We'd warned all our littles and fems good after Bart told us the score. They weren't to go on any search---not without a guy with them. But Marsie had gone to the tape lib this morning with Kath and Don. Don came back by himself saying they had heard some funny singing and that the girls had run away so he could not find them.

We rounded up all the littles and fems and posted a guard like an Up raid was on. Jak and Tim took out one way, Sim and I the other. The lib was empty. We searched there first. And whoever had been there couldn't have doubled back toward us. Too many had the path in good sight. So we went the other way and that took us into deep territory. Only I knew we were going right by what I found just a little while ago and had tucked in my belt now---Marsie's cat.

And if she'd dropped that---! I kept my hand on my pricker. Maybe you couldn't finish this Rhyming Man with a burner, but let me get close enough, and I'd use a pricker and my own two hands!

The deep territories are places to make a guy keep watching over his shoulder. They're always so quiet, and you keep coming across deaders from the old days, mostly just bones and such---but still they're deaders. And all those windows---you get an itchy feeling between your shoulders that someone just looked at you and ducked away when you turned around. With a hundred million places for a loony Up to hide out we had no chance at all of finding him. Only I wasn't going to give up as long as I could keep walking---knowing he had Marsie.

Sim had been marking our way. It's been done---getting lost---even keeping to paths we know. But we were coming into a place I'd never seen, big buildings with straight walls, no windows in them. There were a couple of wide doors---and one was open.

"Listen!" Sim pawed my arm. But he needn't have, I heard it too.

London bridge is broken down.

Broken down, broken down,

My fair lady.

 

How shall we built it up again?

Up again, up again?

My fair lady.

 

Built it up with silver and gold.

Silver and gold, silver and gold.

My fair lady.

I had it now, pointed with my pricker---"In there." Sim nodded and we went through the open door.

Silver and gold will be stole away,

Stole away, stole away,

My fair lady.

Odd, the sound didn't seem to get any louder, but it wasn't fading away either, just about the same. We were in a big wide hall with a lot of openings off on either side. There were lights here, but so dim you had to take a chance on your path.

Build it up with iron and steel,

Iron and steel, iron and steel.

My fair lady.

Still ahead as far as I could tell.

Iron and steel will rust away,

Rust away, rust away,

My fair lady.

 

Build it up with wood and clay,

Wood and clay, wood and clay.

My fair lady.

All at once the singing was loud and clear. We came out on a balcony above a place so big that most of the den-ins I knew could be packed into it with room to spare. There was light below but it shone up from the floor in a way I had never seen before.

"There he is!" Again I didn't need Sim to point him out. I saw the blazing figure. Blaze he did, blue and gold, like he was a fire, but the wrong color. And he was dancing back and forth as he sang;

Wood and clay will wash away,

Wash away, wash away,

My fair lady.

 

Build it up with stone so strong,

Stone so strong stone so strong.

My fair lady.

 

Hurrah, it will hold for ages long.

Ages long ages long.

My fair lady.

At the end of each verse he would bend forward in a jerky little bow, and those listening would clap their hands and laugh.

Because Marsie and Kath were not the only littles down there. There were four others I had never seen before. And none of them were Up brats.

The Rhyming Man jigged around. When he stopped and they all yelled for more, he shook his head and waved his hands as if he couldn't talk but could make motions they could understand. They all got up and formed a line and began to hop and skip after him. The floor was all laid out in squares of different colors. And, as those were stepped on, lights flashed underneath. It was as if the littles were playing a game. But I couldn't understand it.

Then the Rhyming Man began that singing again:

Erry, Orrey, Ickery Ann

Fillison, follison, Nicholas John

Queecy, quavey, English Navy

One, two, three, out goes---

She, he, she, he, she, she, he!

Like he was shooting off a burner, he pointed his finger at each little in line. And, as he did so (it was like an Up dream), they just weren't there any more!

Marsie! I couldn't jump over that balcony. I'd go splat down there, and that wouldn't do Marsie any good, if she was still alive. But I began running along, trying to find some way down, and there was no way down. Only what would I do when I got there, because now the Rhyming Man was gone also.

Sim pounded along behind me. We were about halfway around that place---still no way down. Then I saw it ahead and I guess I more fell than footed it down those inner stairs. When I came charging out on the empty floor---nothing, nothing at all!

I even got down and felt the squares where they had been standing, pounded on those, thinking those might be doors which opened to drop them through. But the blocks were tight. Then I began to wonder if I had tripped out like an Up---without any pills. I just sat there holding my head, trying to think.

"I saw them, they were here---then they weren't." Sim kicked at one of the squares. "Where did they go?"

If he saw it, too, then I hadn't tripped. But there had to be an answer. I made myself try to remember everything I had seen---that crazy song, them marching, then another crazy song---I stood up. "They got out somehow. And if there's a door it can be opened." I couldn't just be wild mad, I had to think, and straight now. No use of just wanting to grab the Rhyming Man and pound his head up and down on the floor.

"Listen here, Sim. We've got to find out what happened. I'm staying here to look around. You cut back and get the rest of the guys, bring them here. When he comes out, I want that Rhyming Man!"

"Staying here by yourself mightn't be too good an idea, Lew.”

'I can take cover. But I don't want to miss him when he comes back. Then I can trail him until you catch up." It might not be too bright, but it was the best plan I had. And I intended going over that flooring until something did happen and we could find the way in to wherever Marsie and the rest of the littles were.

Sim went off. I knew he was glad to get out of that place, but he'd be back. Sim had never back-footed yet on any mission. Meanwhile, I'd better get busy.

I closed my eyes. Sometimes if you think about a thing hard enough you see it like a picture in your mind. Now---the six littles---and then, in front of them, the Rhyming Man jiggling back and forth, his suit all bright and shining---singing about London bridge---

Opening my eyes again I studied the blocks. The littles had been sitting, or squatting, there, there, and there. And he had been over there. I raised my hand to point as if I were showing it all to someone else.

London bridge? London was another city---somewhere---not near here. When the cities were all sealed against the bad air---well, for a while they talked to each other with T-casts. Then it wasn't any use---every one had it all just as bad.

Cities died when their breathers broke---those that had been the worst off in the beginning. In others---who knows what happened? Maybe we were lucky here, maybe we weren't. But our breathers had kept on going---only the plagues hit and people died. After all the oldies died, there was a lot more air.

But London was a city once. London bridge? A bridge to another city? But how could one step off a block onto a bridge you couldn't see, nor feel? Silver and gold---we wore silver and gold things---got them out of the old stores. My tick was gold.

The whole song made a kind of sense, not that that helped any. But that other thing he had sung, after they had moved around on the blocks---I closed my eyes trying to see that march, and I moved to the square Marsie had stood on right at the last, following the different-colored blocks just as I had seen her do.

Yeah, and I nearly lost my second skin there. Because those blocks lit up under my feet. I jumped off---no lights. So the lights had meaning. Maybe the song also---

I was almost to the block where the Rhyming Man had been, but before I reached it, he was back! He was flashing blue and gold in a way to hurt your eyes, and he just stood there looking at me. He had no stunner nor burner, not even a pricker. I could have cut him down like a con-rat. Only if I did that, I'd never get to Marsie, I had to have what was in his mind to do that.

Then he gave me one of those bows and said something, which made no more sense than you'd get out an Up high on red:

Higgity, piggity, my black hen---

She lays eggs for gentlemen.

I left my pricker in my belt, but that didn't mean I couldn't take him. I'm light but I'm fast, and I can take any guy in our crowd. It's mostly thinking, getting the jump on the other. He was still spouting when I dived at him.

It was like throwing myself head first into a wall. I never laid a finger on him, just bounced back and hit the floor with a bang which knocked a lot of wind out of me. There he was, standing as cool as drip ice, shaking his head a little as if he couldn't believe any guy would be so dumb as to rush him. I wanted a burner then---in the worst way. Only I haven't had one of those for a long time.

One, two, three, four,

Five, six, seven.

All good children

Go to Heaven.

 

One, two, three, four,

Five, six, seven, eight,

All bad children

Have to wait.

I didn't have to have it pounded into my head twice. There was no getting at him---at least not with my hands. Sitting up, I looked at him. Then I saw he was an oldie---real oldie. His face was all wrinkled, and on his head there was only a fringe of white hair, he was bald on top. The rest of him was all covered up with those shining clothes. I had never seen such an oldie except on a tape---it was like seeing a story walking around.

"Where's Marsie?" If the oldie was an Up, maybe he could be startled into answering me. You can do that with Ups sometimes.

One color, two color,

Three color, four,

Five color, six color,

Seven color more.

What color is yours?

He pointed to me. And he seemed to be expecting some answer. Did he mean the block I was sitting on? If he did---that was red, as he could see for himself. Unless he was on pills---then it sure could be any color as far as he was concerned.

"Red," I played along. Maybe I could keep him talking until the guys got here. Not that there was much chance in that; Sim had a good ways to go.

You 're too tall,

The door's too small.

Again he was shaking his head as if he were really sorry for me for some reason.

"Listen," I tried to be patient, like with an Up you just had to learn something from, "Marsie was here. You pointed at her---she was gone. Now just where did she go?"

He took to singing again:

Build it up with stone so strong,

Stone so strong, stone so strong.

 

Hurrah, it will last ages long---

Ages long, ages long---

Somehow he impressed me that behind all his queer singing there was a meaning, if I could only find it. That bit about my being too tall now---

"Why am I too tall?" I asked.

A.B.C.D.

Tell your age to me.

Age? Marsie was a little---small, young. That fitted. He wanted littles. I was too big, too old.

"I don't know---maybe I'm about sixteen, I guess. But I want Marsie---"

He had been jiggling from one foot to the other as if he wanted to dance right out of the hall. But still he faced me and watched me with that queer I'm-sorry-for-you look of his.

Seeing's believing---no, no, no!

Seeing's believing, you can't go!

Believing, that is best,

Believing's seeing. that's the test.

Seeing's believing, believing's seeing---I tried to sort that out. "You mean---the littles---they can believe in something, even though they don't see it? But me, I can't believe unless I see?"

He was nodding now. There was an eager look about him. Like one of the littles playing some trick and waiting for you to be caught. Not a mean trick, a funny, surprise one.

"And I'm too old?"

He was watching me, his head a little on one side.

One, two, sky blue.

All out but you.

Sky blue---Outside! But the sky hadn't been blue for years---it was dirty, poisoned. The whole world Outside was poisoned. We'd heard the warnings from the speakers every time we got close to the old sealed gates. No blue sky---ever again. And if Marsie was Outside---dying---!

I pointed to him just as he had to the littles. I didn't know his game, but I could try to play it, if that was the only way of reaching Marsie now---I had to play it!

"I'm too big, maybe, and I'm too old, maybe. But I can try this believing-seeing thing. And I'm going to keep on trying until I make it work! Either that, or I turn into an oldie like you doing it. So---"

I turned my back on him and went right back to that line of blocks up which they had gone and I started along those with him watching, his head still a little to one side as if he were listening, but not to me. Under my feet those lights flashed. All the time he watched. I was determined to show him that I meant just what I said---I was going to keep on marching up and down there---maybe till I wore a hole through the floor.

Once I went up and nothing happened. So I just turned around, went back, ready to start again.

"This time," I told him, "you say it---loud and clear---you say it just like you did the other time---when the littles went."

At first he shook his head, backed away, making motions with his hands for me to go away. But I stood right there. I was most afraid he would go himself, that I would be left in that big bare hall with no one to open the gate for me. But so far he hadn't done that vanishing bit.

" 'Orrey,' " I prompted.

Finally, he shrugged. I could see he thought I was heading into trouble. Well, now it was up to me. Believing was seeing, was it? I had to keep thinking that this was going to work for me as well as it had for the littles. I walked up those flashing blocks.

The Rhyming Man pointed his finger at me.

"Erry, Orrey, Ickery Ann."

I closed my eyes. This was going to take me to Marsie; I had to believe that was true, I hung on to that---hard.

Fillison, follison, Nicholas John.

Queevy, quavey, English Navy

One, two, three---

This was it! Marsie---I'm coming!

"Out goes he!"

It was awful, a twisting and turning, not outside me, but in. I kept my eyes shut and thought of Marsie and that I must get to her. Then I fell, down flat. When I opened my eyes---this---this wasn't the city!

There was a blue sky over me and things I had seen in the T-casts---grass that was still green and not sere and brown like in the last recordings made before they sealed the city forever. There were flowers and a bird---a real live bird---flying overhead.

"Amazing!"

I was still on my knees, but I moved around to face him. The Rhyming Man stood there, but that glow which hung around him back in the hall was gone. He just looked like an ordinary oldie, a real tired Oldie. But he smiled and waved his hand to me.

"You give me new hopes, boy. You're the first of your age and sex. Several girls have made it, but they were more imaginative by nature.”

"Where are we? And where's Marsie?'

"You're Outside. Look over there."

He pointed and I looked. There was a big grey blot---ugly looking, spoiling the brightness of the grass, the blue of the sky. You didn't want to keep looking at it.

"There's your city, the last hope of mankind, they thought, those poor stubborn fools who had befouled their world. Silver and gold, iron and steel, mud and clay---cities they've been building and rebuilding for thousands of years. Their bridge cities broke and took them along in the destruction. As for Marsie, and those you call the littles, they'll know about real stone, how to really build. You'll find them over that hill."

"And where are you going?"

He sighed and looked even tireder. "Back to play some more games, to hunt for more builders."

"Listen here," I stood up. "Just let me see Marsie, and then I'll go back, too. They’ll listen to me. Why, we can bring the whole crowd, Bart's, too, out---"

But he'd started shaking his head even before I was through.

"Ibbity, bibbity, sibbity, Sam.

Ibbity, bibbity, as I am---" he repeated and then added, "No going back once you're out."

"You do."

He sighed. "I am programmed to do just that. And I can only bring those ready to believe in seeing---"

"You mean, Sim, Jak, the others can't get out here---ever?"

"Not unless they believe to see. That separates the builders, those ready to begin again, from the city blindmen."

he was gone, just like an old arc winking out for the last time.

I started walking, down over the hill. Marsie saw me coming. She had flowers stuck in her hair, and there was a soft furry thing in her arms. She put it down to hop away before she came running.

Now we wait for those the Rhyming Man brings. (Sim and Fanna came together two days ago.) I don't know who he is, or how he works his tricks. If we see him, he never stays long, and he won't answer questions. We call him Nicholas John, and we live in London Bridge, though it's not London, nor a bridge---just a beginning.

 



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