Fools Pass Under

by Kat Otis

London, 1633

“Blood and nails,” Senior Bridgemaister John Potter swore, as he inspected the smoldering bridge from the relative safety of Thames Street. The fire had spread from the bridge to the riverside, reducing almost a hundred houses there to smoking ruins, but at least that had been the end of it for those who lived on solid land. Not so for the inhabitants of London Bridge.

The entire north end of the bridge had been scoured down to stone, the timber-framed houses that formerly lined both sides now reduced to ashes. An ominous red glow warned that the fire still burned on in vaults and cellars; it wouldn’t take much wind to lick those flames up to full strength again. At least the southern end of the bridge had survived, being separated from the northern end by a wooden drawbridge meant to allow the passage of ships. But it was not men fighting the fire who had cut down the drawbridge and thrown its broken remnants into the mostly frozen Thames, nor was it men who cast the misshapen shadow now moving amongst the fire’s wreckage.

The troll had awakened.

David Bourne, the junior bridgemaister, picked his way through the wreckage to John’s side. He began his report as soon as he was within earshot. “The bridge has been completely evacuated. The gates are closed, the portcullises lowered for added protection, and we have men standing guard on both ends of the bridge.”

“Has anyone managed to speak with it, yet?” John asked, without much hope.

“Not and lived to tell the tale.”

John grimaced. It would be days before they managed to create an accurate tally of the dead, consumed by the fire or the troll or both. But whatever the final number, one thing was already clear—it wasn’t enough to satisfy the troll. This would be no repeat of the 1381 and 1450 Awakenings, when the troll had sated itself on the king’s rebellious subjects then slept again of its own accord. “Someone will have to go out there and negotiate with it.”

“We should find the Lord Mayor—” David began.

“No. We swore an oath before God to sustain the bridge. I’ll not go running to Guildhall when we haven’t even tried to do our duty.”

“But someone has to tell him what’s happened.”

John turned his full attention to the man beside him, taking in David’s wide eyes, pale face, and shaking hands. David was good with managing accounts and organizing workmen, but facing a troll was apparently too much for him. Then again, John wasn’t certain he was up to the task either. “Yes, and if I can’t reason with the creature, that someone will be you.”

Relief and shame fought a brief skirmish across David’s face—relief won. “All right.”

Now that the decision was made, there was no sense in delaying. John picked his way through the rubble until he reached the frozen river. Trying to negotiate with the troll from the bridge would be suicidal—it would put him firmly within the troll’s power—which meant he needed to approach the bridge by water, instead. Thankfully, that was a far easier task in winter, when he could walk on the ice, than it would have been in the summer, when he would have had to use a boat and fight the treacherous currents near the bridge’s arches. Dozens of young men died every year, shooting the rapids beneath the bridge. Though John had always privately wondered how many of those deaths were really the drownings they seemed to be.

Not all the ice was strong enough to support a man’s weight, so John kept his steps slow and took great care as he moved from floe to floe. The ice would be even thinner further out from the shoreline, so he headed for the nearest of the bridge’s piers. He was only a stone’s throw away from the starling that protected the pier when a flash of movement on the bridge above caught his attention. He stopped in his tracks.

A moment later, the troll swung off the edge of the bridge, climbed down the pier, and perched on the starling.

It was much bigger than John had expected. He had only seen trolls twice before—their stone bridges were rare in England, as King Henry III had forbidden the construction of new bridges in stone over four hundred years earlier—and both those trolls had been simple little things that posed no real danger as long as they were kept sated with chickens and the occasional goat. While his Continental colleagues had always said the size of the bridge determined the size and intelligence of the troll it begat, only now did he truly comprehend what they had meant. This troll’s head was the height of a full-grown man and its squat, leathery body was so wide it filled the entire starling.

Then it spoke, its voice so deep that John could feel his very bones shake, and a spiderweb of cracks began to spread across the ice. “Wilt thou come closer, little man?”

John bowed, politely, but stayed where he was. “There is a saying, among bridgemaisters. A bridge is for wise men to pass over and for fools to pass under.”

“Thou art a bridgemaister?” The troll did not wait for an answer. “I hunger.”

“I can bring you bears, cows, horses—”

“Men.” The troll shifted its weight so that it was leaning forward, as if it was considering stepping off the starling and onto the ice.

“Have a care.” John’s heartbeat started pounding out its rhythm so loudly he could hear it. The troll was large enough that a single step would bring him within its deadly reach. His title would not save him, if the troll was hungry enough. “The ice is quite thin—you might fall through it.”

“Men,” the troll repeated, settling back against the pier.

John breathed a little easier, but not much. “Surely a herd of fat cattle would be more filling than a few scrawny men—”

“Many, many men.” The troll leaned forward again.

“Men!” John promised, hastily. “And then you will sleep?”

“Yes.” The troll made an impatient gesture with one hand. “After I eat.”

“I must make… arrangements... with the aldermen and the Lord Mayor. I will return as soon as possible.”

The troll made a rumbling sound that might have been agreement or might have been hunger, then clambered up the pier and vanished from sight.

John wasted no time in retreating across the ice to safety, spirits sinking with every step as he contemplated his failure. David met him at the shoreline. “It spoke to you?”

“It did,” John said, grimly. “Now we head to Guildhall.”


Chaos reigned in the great Guildhall where the Common Council of the City of London held their meetings. Nicholas Rainton, the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London, had convened a committee to deal with the Awakening, but the half dozen aldermen were making enough noise for ten times their number. John paused at the door for a moment, taking it all in, then strode into the room with David at his heels.

“Silence!” Mayor Rainton’s bellow broke through the din, and the aldermen reluctantly quieted. As John approached Mayor Rainton, one by one the aldermen turned their attention to him, until the only sound was his footsteps. He stopped before the Lord Mayor and bowed low. Mayor Rainton waited for him to straighten before demanding, “Tell me you have news.”

“We do, my Lord Mayor,” John said. “I have spoken with the troll.” A murmur rose from the watching aldermen and John had to raise his voice to deliver his terrible report. “It will not sleep again until it has fed on human flesh.”

“More than it has already consumed? Christ’s wounds!” Mayor Rainton’s curse was not the only one that followed on the heels of John’s words, only the loudest.

Alderman Abdy, who represented the ward just beyond the bridge’s southern gate, recovered from the news first. “You should not have been so quick to evacuate the bridge.”

“And let the troll feast upon my people?” Alderman Poole, whose ward was the bridge itself, placed his hand upon the knife at his waist. “You would sacrifice dozens of innocent lives—”

“People who chose to live above a troll—”

“A troll that’s been asleep for almost two hundred years!”

“Enough! This solves nothing.” Mayor Rainton gave the bickering aldermen a stern look and they subsided again.

“My Lord Mayor? If I may?” John waited for Mayor Rainton’s nod, then addressed the room, determined to make them aware of the seriousness of the threat. “During my tenure, I have read all the Bridge House records. The last two Awakenings, the troll was disturbed by rebels attacking the bridge itself. Once awake, the troll ate them all. That’s not dozens of lives, but hundreds.”

“We must empty the prisons,” Alderman Abdy suggested.

Alderman Poole was as quick to protest as before. “Of murderers and traitors, perhaps, but the rest? Do vagrants and debtors deserve to die?”

“Under the old poor laws, yes!” Alderman Abdy shot back.

The room quickly dissolved into chaos again, but this time Mayor Rainton allowed it. Instead of silencing their debate, he beckoned John forward. “The last two Awakenings, you said, but I thought the troll had awakened three times before.”

“Right after the bridge was first built, yes. But that was before the Bridge House Estates were created to maintain the bridge—our records don’t stretch back that far. What contemporary accounts survive are most certainly inaccurate.”

“In the particulars, perhaps.” Mayor Rainton made a dismissive motion with his hand. “But better than nothing.”

Arguing with the Lord Mayor would be as useless as arguing with the troll, so John acquiesced with as much grace as he could. “Supposedly the 1212 fire started on the south end of the bridge, but before the bridge could be evacuated, the troll kindled a second fire on the north end. All the bridge’s inhabitants—perhaps as many as three thousand people—were trapped. Those who didn’t leap to their death in the river were eaten.”

“I had wondered why you moved so quickly to evacuate when the fire began.” Mayor Rainton nodded to himself. “How much time do you think we have before the troll figures out how to bypass the gatehouses?”

John thought of the ease with which the troll had climbed down the pier—a full sixty feet in height—and shook his head. “You have it backwards, my Lord Mayor. The gatehouses are to keep people out, not the troll in.”

Mayor Rainton paled. “It could rampage at any time?”

“A troll cannot go far from the bridge that sustains it. One this size might manage a hundred yards at most.” Not that that was much comfort. John was well aware that thousands of people lived at either end of the bridge. But if the troll were free to traverse the city as it liked... John shuddered to think of the death toll then.

“Bromfield, Abdy, Poole!” Mayor Rainton gestured peremptorily and the three aldermen reluctantly came to heel. “Go supervise the evacuations of your wards.”

“This is ridiculous—” Alderman Abdy protested.

“Or you can wait!” Mayor Rainton snapped. “In which case there won’t be any need to empty the prisons.”

That finally silenced the alderman and the three left without further argument. John retreated to stand against the wall with David while the three aldermen who remained began discussing the logistics of emptying the prisons, much more cordially than before. Then again, none of their wards were under direct threat from the troll.

After a few minutes, David stirred. “Perhaps I should return to the bridge? Make certain they evacuate to a safe distance.”

John glanced at the aldermen and the Lord Mayor, who were now debating whether they could afford to limit themselves to only those prisoners who had already been condemned. Surely even men accused of the most vile crimes still deserved due process of law? But if they spared the accused, would there be enough to satisfy the troll or would it go on a rampage before they could finish the evacuation, killing hundreds or even thousands? How far did their duty to the city extend?

“Can’t bear to listen any longer?” John asked him.

David grimaced. “It makes bitter hearing.”

“Think instead of the lives that will be saved,” John suggested, as the debate wound down and the Lord Mayor began issuing his orders. It was the smallest of consolations, but it was the only one he could think to offer.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” David straightened, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and nodded his understanding.

But for the briefest of moments, as the Lord Mayor’s gaze met John’s from across the hall, a different understanding passed between them: even this might not be enough.


For as long as he lived, John would never forget the piteous cries of the shackled prisoners being dragged to the bridge. This was not the stately ritual of a hanging or a beheading, coming in due course with time beforehand to repent and save one’s soul. Many desperately protested their innocence, to the obvious discomfort of even their gaolers, and the crowd that gathered to observe them remained solemnly silent.

Under John’s supervision, two men employed by the Bridge House Estate broke through the door of the porter’s lodge adjoining the gate. The noise attracted the troll’s attention, drawing it back from the Southwark side of the bridge to loom over the gatehouse. As its flat-nosed face rose over the building, followed by the rest of its enormous bulk, the crowd lurched and stumbled backwards. Even the gaolers fled to the far end of the bridge, while the trapped prisoners’ gibbering and screams rose to new pitches. The noise seemed to irritate the troll, for it lifted a hand and pitched something toward the huddled mass of men.

Circular objects rained down on them, like apples from a wind-tossed tree. One of the prisoners did not shield his head swiftly enough and was struck; blood poured from his face. The bloody projectile then rolled across the cobblestones until it caught up against John’s foot. It was one of the partially mummified heads normally displayed over the Southwark gatehouse, as a warning to would-be traitors; skin tanned like leather was broken by gaping holes where birds had plucked out the eyes.

David leaned over and vomited in the middle of the street.

A short but heated argument broke out among the gaolers, then one of them approached John. “Begging pardon, sir, but...”

“But?” From the pallor of the man’s skin, John suspected he already knew.

“We’re not going any closer.”

“You will or you will be dismissed!” David blustered, the effect slightly diminished by the vomit dripping from his nose and staining his chin.

“Better on the streets than dead.” The man turned and retreated to the safety of his fellows without waiting for a reply.

“Of all the—”

“Enough.” John cut David off before he could make any other dramatic proclamations. A man couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to endanger his body, and perhaps also his soul, by dragging hysterical prisoners into the troll’s grasp. But that left them with a quandary. The prisoners were not going to walk through the porter’s lodge to the bridge of their own accord.

His gaze swept across the bridge, seeking inspiration. There was the troll, of course, and the charred gatehouse. The battered heads scattered across the cobblestones. The terrified prisoners and their equally terrified gaolers. The ragged crowd...

John’s breath caught. “David. You’ve seen the accounts more recently than I. How stand the Bridge House finances?”

“It will be expensive to repair the damage.” David wiped in vain at his befouled face. “We might have to raise the tolls, start up a subscription fund—”

“Forget repairing the damage. How stand our finances right now, in this moment?”

“Well enough, I suppose? If not for this, we could have had a surplus this year.”

John nodded, then turned his back on the bridge and strode toward the crowd. He swept his gaze over the men gathered there, then gestured to a large, sturdy man in a russet doublet mended so many times it was more patch than cloth. Day laborers were strong, but poor. Desperately poor. “You there. What would you say to five shillings for a day’s work?”

The man met his gaze, boldly skeptical. “Feeding men to the troll, sir?”

“Criminals,” John countered. “Cutthroats, traitors, thieves—”

“Ten shillings,” the man interrupted. “In advance.”


John surveyed the crowd and for every man that shrank away from his gaze, another jockeyed forward. Three more volunteers swiftly emerged and followed him back to where David frowned in puzzlement.

“Witness this,” John ordered David, opening his purse and counting out silver coins into the men’s waiting hands.

The four volunteers briefly exchanged words, deciding on strategy, then approached the waiting prisoners. They seized upon the bloody-faced man first. He was too dazed to struggle much as they dragged him to the door and pitched him bodily through. The troll swung down to claim its prize and screams rang out for a few brief heartbeats before cutting off abruptly. Even the prisoners were stunned to silence, as if that might somehow allow them to be overlooked by the four volunteers, who didn’t hesitate as they hurried away from the gate.

Then the prisoners began screaming in earnest and didn’t stop as, one by one, they were dragged forth to meet their pitiful fates.

One of the prisoners, stronger or simply more terrified than the others, managed to lodge himself sideways against the door. The four volunteers pried at his hands and feet, kicking and shoving and cursing loudly enough to be heard over even the prisoners’ screams.

Whether it was the delay or the noise, John didn’t know. One moment, the troll seemed to be distracted by the remnants of its most recent victim. The next, an enormous hand shot through the doorway, crushing tight around both the prisoner and one of the volunteers. The other three leapt backwards with more oaths, but the troll’s hand retreated with its prey, leaving a bloody trail behind.

An anxious murmur arose from the crowd and for a moment John was afraid they might turn on him, the playwright of this macabre scene. Then a man emerged from the crowd, trailing a dangerously thin woman with a swollen belly and tears streaking her face.

The man planted himself in front of John, his face determined. “You said ten shillings?”

John stared. After what they had all just witnessed? He had underestimated the desperation that poverty created. But he needed these men almost as much as they needed his money. So he re-opened his purse, and counted out coins into the poor woman’s hand.

None of the prisoners went quietly, after that, but the grim work proceeded apace until the last was thrown to his death. John took cold comfort from the fact that the rest of his volunteers survived to retreat into a huddle with the anxious gaolers. After the ear-shattering screams of the condemned, even the crowd’s anxious chatter felt like silence.

That silence dragged out for seconds that threatened to turn into minutes as John’s heart began to pound, painfully, with growing hope that they had sent enough felons to their deaths to satisfy the troll’s hunger and would not also have to empty the debtors’ prisons.

But the troll raised itself to loom over the gatehouse again, and hope died. Many of the onlookers fled, then, but enough remained that John feared the troll would be tempted to go after them. Some sinful part of him almost wished the troll would, satiating itself on the ghoulish onlookers instead of the poor souls whose only crime was to be in debt at this dire moment. They would die for lack of pounds, or even shillings and pence. For some, their debts might be less than what he had just paid men to risk their lives.

A thought struck John cold.

He stared, voiceless, at the troll who was the source of all this misery. The troll had consumed hundreds of lives—some lost to ill fortune, some to the Lord Mayor’s commands—but none of their souls were on John’s conscience. Even now, it wasn’t too late to make his excuses, to flee to the Lord Mayor and force someone else to decide whose lives to sacrifice next. But God only knew what the troll would do in the meantime, if its patience finally came to an end. No. No, he could not hide behind the power of the Lord Mayor and beg for the debtors’ prisons to be emptied, not when he knew another way. He was the senior bridgemaister. This was his sworn duty.

Speaking the words was even harder than facing down the troll, but John drew up his courage and reminded himself of all the innocent lives at stake. Then he turned to David and said the words he could never take back.

“If a poor man will risk death for ten shillings, what more might one do for ten pounds?”


John hoped God could forgive him, because he would never forgive himself.

Nearly threescore ragged men and a few equally ragged women stood arranged before him, terrified but determined, even after they saw the shadow of the troll moving about on the smoldering bridge. The desperate men who had volunteered for his blood money. The brave men he was about to kill. The men whose gazes he could not meet. He turned to survey the streets instead.

An even larger crowd of women and children stood further up Bridge Street, behind a barricade hastily erected by the remaining gaolers. Some of the women sobbed quietly, but most stood quietly stunned, as if they could not believe their fortunes had led them to this. Their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons—all reduced to tally sticks promising them the sum of ten pounds, as much as a skilled craftsman might make in a year. A pickpocket had tried to ply his trade amongst them and had both his arms broken before one of the gaolers managed to extract him from the crowd. Unfortunately for the pickpocket, the punishment for such a large theft was death, a sentence the gaolers were all too willing to carry out posthaste.

David stayed just long enough to disperse payments, then volunteered to report to the Lord Mayor’s office. John had considered requiring him to stay, in case someone needed to run to the goldsmiths for more funds, but one look at David’s face had convinced him otherwise. The man was near his breaking point.

John was, too, but he didn’t have the luxury of fleeing from his duty. He was the senior bridgemaister, and he refused to look away while men died by his command.

He stood beside the first of the men, whose body was knotted and twisted with old age, and tried to find the words that would properly express his gratitude. But nothing came but platitudes and finally, as the silence stretched, he blurted out, “Who are you doing this for?”

The old man blinked, tearing his gaze away from the specter of the door he was about to pass through, and turned to John instead. “I have three granddaughters.” He left unspoken the fate that poor girls too often suffered once they were old enough for a man to covet. One life for the hope of three, not to mention the countless strangers who would be saved if the troll could be lured back to sleep.

John fumbled for a response and finally settled on, “God be with you.”

The old man took it as a command—perhaps it was—and limped through the door to the porter’s lodge. His shout, when it came, was as much a war cry as a scream of terror.

A woman stepped up beside John, pale and beautiful beneath the dirt and grime of poverty. She smiled at him, sadly, and said, “I’ve been coughing blood for three months now.” John stiffened and resisted the urge to step away. Consumption. She was already dying. “At least this way... my family needs this.”

What could any man say to that? It was utterly inadequate, but John managed to repeat his previous blessing, “God be with you.”

As the woman strode forward, demanding death on her own terms, another woman stepped forward and began to tell him her story. And so he listened and offered them what blessing he could as they came forward, one by one. They did it for their starving families. They were old, weak, crippled, or sick. Each told a story of life on the edge and of lives they hoped to save through their sacrifice. They were all martyrs worthy of Christ Himself.

And then a man, surprisingly young and hale, stepped forward and shrugged. “You want my story, but there isn’t one.”

“But surely this is more than some whim,” John protested, then winced at his own arrogance. He had only meant to comfort that first old man, and the men and women who followed had all volunteered their own stories, needing to be heard. But he had no right to their stories. Only the flesh and blood he had bought from them.

The young man turned to look at him, as if measuring his worth, then said with careful words, “Some sins cannot be forgiven.”

John fumbled to recover from his mistake. It was not his place to judge their motives and he had to hope that whatever sins the man had committed would surely be forgiven after he made this, the ultimate sacrifice. “God be with you anyway.”

The young man snorted his disbelief and made his way to the porter’s lodge. His screams seemed to echo longer than those who had gone before, but surely it was only John’s imagination.

All too soon, the last martyr was limping forward to his death and John clenched his fists so tight that his fingernails dug into his palms and drew blood. If this was not enough, if he had to return to the Lord Mayor and watch even more poor men and women dragged unwillingly to their doom, as innocent as the men, women, and children he was trying to save...

One scream rang out, loud and swiftly silenced.

John drew in a ragged breath and whispered, “Lord, hear our prayers. Have mercy upon Thy people. Let the troll sleep. Please, Lord in Heaven, please, let the troll sleep. Please. Please. Please.”

The troll pulled itself up to the top of the gatehouse, the lower half of the martyr’s body clenched in one hand. John tasted bile and agonized cries rang out from the crowd as the troll crammed the remnants into his mouth like a child too impatient to chew. Blood ran down its chin as it surveyed the crowd.

John did not think it was his imagination that the troll’s gaze caught his and lingered there.

Then the troll abruptly dropped over the side of the bridge and clambered back down to vanish into the darkness beneath. The crowd slowly quieted, as if they couldn’t quite believe their senses. Then someone cried out in relief and a ragged cheer swept the crowd. For those who lived above the bridge, the nightmare was over, at last.

But the pockets of silence—the grieving women and children—were a stark reminder that for many, the nightmare was only beginning.


John rowed against the current toward the middle of the river Thames, the muscles of his arms and shoulders burning from the strain of unaccustomed labor. Above him, London Bridge blocked the light of the setting sun and cast its long shadow across the murky waters.

Life had returned to normal for those who lived and worked upon the bridge. A few people had left, a few more had come, and there was no discernable difference in either the rents or the tolls. The drawbridge had been restored and traffic was as heavy as before. The only visible scar of the Awakening was the timber-walled gap where the burnt houses had not yet been replaced, but time would heal that soon enough.

John despaired of the other, less visible scars ever mending.

Since the Awakening, he had tried everything. He had prayed, fasted, and spoken to priests of every inclination, but nothing helped. Every night as he lay down to sleep, his dreams were filled with queues of desperate martyrs. Was it hubris to blame himself for their deaths? He didn’t know and, in some ways, that was the worst of all.

For every man, there came a time when the pain and grief and uncertainty grew too great to be endured. This was his time. The waters around his boat swirled in an inchoate pattern as the tide turned and the river’s current reversed itself. His fate was in God’s hands now.

John uttered a brief prayer. For himself, for the reckless fools who chose to live with a troll, and for the brave souls who died so that others might survive.

Then Senior Bridgemaister John Potter aimed for bridge and passed under.

Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. Her historical fiction has been published in Daily Science Fiction, OSC’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, and (most recently) in Alternate Peace, edited by Steven H. Silver and Joshua Palmatier. You can find her full bibliography at and she procrastinates on Twitter as @kat_otis.

“Fools Pass Under” by Kat Otis. Copyright © 2019 by Kat Otis.

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