Volume 1 Number 1
One day, Jack and his son set out on a train to a Father's Day picnic, to which the Resident Witch of the city had invited them. It was shortly before noon when the Westmanor-City Center train stopped for heavy traffic on a bridge. As Jack looked out of the window, he could see the river winding towards the great harbor a few miles to the south. Closer to him, just over the rail of the bridge, he could see the petrified wreck of a Nazi warship -- its guns, now long tubes of granite, pointing outward and up, as if they still could threaten the city.
"Is that the Reinhardt, Daddy?" asked his son, who was scarcely six years old. "Is that the ship?"
"That's right, George."
"Can it still shoot? Can the Nazis still get us?"
"Oh, no. Daddy and some other men took care of that."
"Is that how you got your stone leg?" asked his son.
Jack had often told his son the story of his adventure -- in twenty years, he had told it to many people -- and he would tell it many times again. But, at that moment, the sight of the gun-ship haunted him, and he didn't feel like doing so. All he said was, "Yes it is, George. When the ship turned to stone, Daddy couldn't get far enough away from it, and his leg was also turned to stone."
Jack was only 14 years old and shouldn't even have been there, but he had volunteered and, short of able men, the sergeant had shrugged and handed the boy a private's uniform and a rifle.
Even in 1945, the city had hardly seen any of the war. Bohemia was protected by mountains on three sides and by the ocean on the fourth. It stood proudly uninvaded. While the country went though periodic Nazi bombardment from the air, much as the Britons had, Jack's city, away from the Germans and the territory they occupied, had missed almost all of it.
Meanwhile, the Allied navies of Bohemia, England, and the United States had, for the most part, managed to keep Axis navies well away from Bohemia's coast for the entire war. Late in March of 1945, however, one Nazi warship -- the Reinhardt; -- had managed to batter its way through the Allies' defense, sneak into the harbor, and make its way up the river.
The Nazi crew knew that they would be forced to surrender or die soon, but they were determined to make a last suicidal offensive and take as many with them as they could. On board the Reinhardt; was an atomic bomb, the first ever to be taken into war. Instead of dropping it, like the United States would do in Japan later that year, the crew of the Reinhardt; planned to take their ship up the river, as close to the heart of the city as they could, then set off the bomb in an explosion that would have done the Japanese Kamikazes proud.
The city's Resident Witch didn't realize what was happening until it was almost too late. If she'd had more time, she might have come up with a less dangerous solution than she did, but time was a not on her side.
Her husband was a major, who, between his martial skill and his wife's magic, had survived many a mission that few others could even have attempted. This time, without time to prepare, his was as much a suicide mission as the Nazis'. Taking his weapons and his wife's charms, he headed for the Reinhardt;, gathering what soldiers he could find to go with him. Jack was one of those soldiers.
When the makeshift patrol reached the water, they opened fire on the Reinhardt;. The German ship was well-armored and the gunfire did little if any damage, but the Bohemians' goal was to distract the Nazi crew so that the Major could sneak in.
With the recklessness of youth, Jack advanced on the Reinhardt; despite enemy fire, many of his fellows advancing with him. Maybe it was that he was the smallest soldier, barely five feet tall, that kept him alive, when so many were killed around him. The Bohemians drove the German crew from the deck of the ship, and their incredible daring left many of them standing on it when the crew of the Reinhardt; set off the atomic bomb in the hold.
Bohemian magic and the science of the rest of Europe and America don't exactly mesh, but that has not stopped scientists from speculating as to how the witch's charms worked. Whatever her methods, they resulted in the city being saved. The bomb did not explode, as it should have;instead, the ship and everything in and on it were turned to stone.
Standing on top of the ship, one of the soldiers was transformed and, off-balance, tipped over and shattered into pieces. Jack wasn't sure what was happening, but he and the rest of the patrol ran. Most got clear in time, though several weren't quick enough and ended up petrified.
Jack tried to leap from the ship, back to shore, but his size worked against him for once. He didn't clear the rail cleanly and fell into the river. He was only a few feet to the shore, but he panicked and, desperate, lashed out. His foot struck the side of the ship as he tried to push himself away. In that moment, his right leg, from just above the knee, was turned to stone. It took four of his comrades to pull him out of the river, else he would've drowned.
The soldiers that had attacked the Reinhardt; were heroes in the city, none more so than Jack, who was the only one to be partially petrified and survive. He was given several medals and a fair amount of acclaim. The stone leg gave him a ticket into just about anyplace he cared to go. By the time he was eighteen years old, he had seen and done almost all there was to see and do.
By the time he was twenty-two years old, he was a drunken, embittered veteran, haunting some of the roughest bars in the city. He lived that way for several years, then realized one morning that he could either change or be dead before he was thirty.
He joined a church that helped him stop drinking. He found a job. He met a nice young woman and married her. They had a son. Life went on as normally as it could for a World War II hero with a stone leg.
Jack had met the Resident Witch only once before, just briefly, while he was still being feted after the war. Why she had finally decided to meet with him again, and why for a Father's Day event, he did not know. However, no one dared turn down an invitation from the Resident Witch.
Finally, the train lurched back into motion and passed the bridge. The next station, Stoneship Park, was their destination. As they stepped off, the boy skipped over the short gap between the train and the platform. Then he gathered himself, as if he were about to run off. Jack grabbed his shoulder.
"You know better," said the father.
"Wasn't going to run away," said the son. "I just wanted to stretch."
Jack smiled. "We'll be at the park soon enough. You'll have a chance to 'stretch' there."
They made their way out of the station, then across the street to the park. They had just stepped inside when the Resident Witch approached them and, making an honorable attempt at merriment, said, "Mr. Stoneleg, you and your son are welcome to this lunch."
She had been Resident Witch of the city for nearly a hundred years, but had not aged in all that time. On this day, she wore a white, sleeveless blouse and matching shorts, trying to appear like just another middle-class housewife at a picnic. But an aura of power hung around her that she could not have hidden, even if she had been dressed in rags.
"Madame," said Jack. "I thank you for your invitation." He nudged George.
"Thank you for your invitation," said the boy. Then, hurriedly, he added, "Madame."
The witch smiled. "The both of you are welcome. And I thank you for coming. Lunch will be in the Pavilion."
From the long, covered, whitewashed raised stage came the sound of cheerful children's music and Jack caught a glimpse of a clown.
"Daddy, now can I stretch?"
"Go ahead," said Jack, laughing. "Run to the Pavilion, if you want."
"Thanks, Daddy," said George, and he was off and running.
"He looks like a very good boy, Mr. Stoneleg," said the witch, as they watched him go.
"Most of the time he is, but he can be a handful. He has lots of energy and doesn't always know what to do with it."
"So what do you do?"
"I remember that he's a normal boy. I had just as much energy when I was the same age."
"So you let him get away with mischief?"
"Hardly." Jack laughed again. "I summon the boy I once was and ask him to lend me some of his energy so I can keep up."
The witch's laughter seemed genuine. "I have several more guests coming. There are hors d'ouevers and drinks at the pavilion, if you want them. Lunch will be served shortly."
Jack went to the pavilion and joined the other twenty or so fathers there. There was, indeed, a clown, along with a merry-go-round and several other things to keep the younger children busy. Some of the children were teenagers, who kept quiet conversation among themselves. They were bored, but knew as well as anyone that it was dangerous to act up around the Witch. As for the fathers, they mostly sat, ate, and drank. Most recognized Jack, but he settled himself among fellow veterans. To them, Jack was just one of their fellows, who had suffered an unusual wound. He could talk with them and not have to endure the hero worship that, unlike just after the war, now embarrassed him.
George seemed happy enough with the entertainment. A little later, the lunch was served and the fathers and their children dug in. There were some father-child races, in which Jack wasn't able to take part. George was old enough to understand and not pout too much. When later contests turned to throwing and target shooting, the pair were among the best.
The afternoon passed swiftly. The sun was starting to disappear behind the office towers when the Witch asked Jack for a private word. He followed her down from the pavilion and across the park, until they came to a small shed hidden by some hedges and a stand of trees. They passed through the door and into a room that could not possibly fit the space within the shed. It had a large bed with white linens. Jack guessed that the Witch's power had led him to somewhere else. Her own rooms, perhaps.
The witch turned to him and smiled. "I suppose you wonder why I brought you here." She was wearing the same outfit that she had all afternoon, but somehow the shorts were a little shorter, the blouse a little more revealing, and the overall effect slightly improper.
Jack had never thought of the Witch as a seducer, but he had seen enough in his time to recognize the intent. "I have a guess."
"Let me free you from the need to guess, Jack." She sat down on the bed and motioned for him to sit with her. When he remained standing where he was, she frowned, but proceeded with her story.
"You're aware I had a daughter," said the Witch.
"She was born during the war, if I remember right."
"You do. Unfortunately, she is no longer my daughter. At least not in any way that I can pass my legacy on to her."
"How is that?"
"There was an American film crew in town last year. I don't know if you follow such things."
"I remember reading something about it in the newspaper. A spy film of some sort, wasn't it?"
"It was, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that my daughter met one of the actors and thinks she fell in love. She's run off to The United States -- to Hollywood -- and married him. The way the Yanks talk about it, it's all one big fairy tale."
"If she's happy, you should be happy," said Jack.
"If it were just a matter of her happiness, I'd be worried about how unstable these Hollywood marriages are, but otherwise be happy for her. However, I had planned to pass my legacy on to her and, by marrying this Hollywood actor, she has cast away her magic. Or maybe traded one magic for another." The witch shrugged. "No matter. She can never inherit my legacy, so I need a new heir. I found out which were reputed to be the best fathers in the city and held a lunch to see how they interacted with their children. You did quite well. The best, in fact."
Here it comes, thought Jack, but he said nothing.
"I want you to marry me," said the Witch. "And father a new heir."
"I'm already married. And happily so."
"You have to give her up. And your son, of course. You've given him quite a good start, but I'll need you to help raise our child."
"Surely, you have nieces or cousins. A nephew, maybe?" He was trying to avoid an outright rejection.
"I did once," said the Witch. "But you forget, I've lived nearly two-hundred years. The blood in any of my descendents is far too diluted."
"There are several fathers out there who are widowers or divorced. Surely it would be better to marry one of them than to break up my marriage."
"I will have only the best," replied the Witch. "And you are the best father."
"But maybe not the best husband."
"No matter. I have enough to keep me occupied. I just want you to father a child, then help me raise it." She lay back in bed, trying to look inviting.
Had Jack not been married, he would have been tempted. "No. I'm sorry, but I must decline. I have a family and I will not leave them."
"They are nothing," said the Witch.
"They are everything to me. There are other fathers out in the park who are just as good and free to marry."
The Witch sat up and frowned. "Not as good," she said. When Jack said nothing, she said, "I can force the issue."
"I don't think so," Jack said, and turned leave the room. When he tried to touch the door, however, he found his arm stopping short of the knob.
"Your flesh will be bound to my will, if need be."
"My flesh, perhaps." With his petrified right leg, he lashed out and kicked the door, breaking through the wood. A few kicks more and there was enough of a hole that he could pass through.
When he tried to walk through the shattered door, he could not. Again, he shrugged and proceeded to hop on the stone leg, until he was through the door and back in the park. There he found he could walk normally again.
He searched until he found George. "Time to go home, son."
George yawned -- it had been a long day for a little boy -- and willingly fell into step beside his father. "Where were you, Daddy?" he asked as they reached the train station.
"The Witch wanted to speak privately to me."
"What did she say?"
"Nothing that matters. Did you have a good time?" They had reached the top of the stairs to the platform where the westbound trains arrived.
Jack smiled. "Then we've had a good day, after all."
The train to Westmanor pulled up. Father and son got on and headed home.
Jack didn't tell his wife any more than that it had been a pleasant lunch, that he'd had had a few words with the Resident Witch, and that George'd had a good time. When his wife asked what the Witch wanted, Jack shrugged and said, "Nothing that concerns us, apparently."
Several mornings later, Jack went to George's room to get him ready for school, only to find an empty bed, except for a note on the Witch's stationery: "You will marry me and father my child. Or else your son will not survive the day. He is on top of The Old Guard and will stay there until you agree to my demands."
The Old Guard was a mountain at the harbor mouth, eight hundred feet straight up. Since before the time of the Caesars, military engineers had carved away and added to it, making it nearly impossible to climb. Even in peacetime, it was all but inaccessible -- except for the
Resident Witch, of course.
As far as Jack was concerned, however, there was no choice. He had to climb the mountain and rescue his son.
He set out without telling his wife, taking the train back to Stoneship Park Station, then transferring to the Harbormouth train. At the end of the line, in the shadow of The Old Guard, he got off the train. King Leo the Mariner Park was along the base of the mountain. In the hustle of the mid-morning commute, no one noticed a man crossing it to the base of the mountain.
Jack's determination to save his son gave him energy for the climb. The stone leg may have weighed him down, but it never grew tired or sore. Still, by midday, he was scarcely one-third of the way up The Old Guard, and the rest of him was tiring quickly. As he lay against the mountainside, he heard a voice, coming through his leg. "What is it you want, Stoneleg?"
"My son," whispered Jack. "My son is at the top of the mountain."
"Hmmf. Why would you leave your boy there?"
"The Resident Witch kidnapped him."
"Ah, I see. Not neglect. Even I have failed to protect the city on several occasions and, as I recall, you helped cover for me one of those times, so I will forgive you your failure of vigilance. Still, if you want your son back, it will cost you."
"Cost me? Cost me what?"
"Your hand and arm."
"What do you want them for?"
"So I can do more. Groom myself. Move loose piles of stone. Rescue climbers, if I think they deserve rescuing. Your hand and arm for your son. Just one arm -- your left."
"I'm left-handed," said Jack.
"Your right hand and arm, then. I'll give you a stone one to match your leg."
"I think I'll try climbing a little more on my own, first."
"I understand," said the mountain.
Jack continued to climb until it was long past midday and drawing near evening. It was obvious that he would not reach the top before dark. "All right, Old Guard. You win. Take my arm and give me back my son."
"Very well," said the mountain. The next Jack knew, he was sitting on the couch in his apartment with George sitting beside him.
"What happened?" asked the little boy.
Jack's wife echoed the question, as she came in from the kitchen. She'd been crying with worry. "The school called to say George hadn't been in school and wanted to know why."
Jack gave a short, simple answer to his son and sent him to play in his room. When he told his wife in more detail what had happened, she was angry with the Witch. She was also quite angry at Jack, for not having told her the truth before.
"But what can we do?" asked Jack. He tried to shrug, but couldn't get it right with the new, stone arm. It had taken him a few months to get used to the leg; he was sure it would be the same with the arm. "She's the Witch. What do we have to oppose her? Even if the law is against her, there's no way that the Resident Witch will be locked up."
"Then we leave the city."
"And go where? Where in Bohemia would we be beyond the Witch's reach, if she is determined to act? And I've paid too much of myself to Bohemia to leave her now. Hopefully, the witch has seen how determined I am to stay with you and George, and this will be the end of it."
But it wasn't the end. Several mornings later, George was gone from his bed again. "You will marry me and father my child. Or else your son will not survive the day. He is being kept underwater, near the Island of the Moon. If you have not agreed to my demands by three o'clock this afternoon, he will drown."
Again, Jack sneaked out without telling his wife. Again, he went to the harbor, but this time he went to a waterside dock, where a friend from the war ran a salvage operation. When Jack told his friend what was happening, he was more than willing to take the boat to the Island of the Moon and help look for George.
When they reached a safe harbor at the Island of the Moon, shortly before noon, Jack put on a diving suit and, attached by a hose to an air pump and by a rope to a winch used for salvaging heavier objects than himself, he searched for several hours on the ocean floor, looking for anything that would tell him where the boy was. But he could not find the smallest clue. The area was simply too large.
It was nearing three o'clock when a school of fish swam out from a coral reef. "Are you looking for a human boy?" asked the school.
"Yes. My son."
"We thought so. We can lead you to him and help you get him to your boat."
"But you want something," said Jack.
"Indeed, there will be a price," said the fish, and Jack sensed a collective smile from them.
"The price is?"
"Your other leg. The one that isn't stone. We cannot replace it with stone, but we can give you a nice, solid, coral leg."
"I haven't a choice," said Jack. "But while you bring my son to me, tell me what you want with a human leg."
"With all the schools we fish are in, some of us have become quite advanced in our learning. We have a theory that there was a time when certain fish took to the land and slowly became the humans that now so much affect the world. One of the first steps, we think, was that they grew legs. We want to follow our long-distant cousins. But we want to study a leg to see how it is done."
"There are many who have drowned whose legs you could study," said Jack. "What do you need with mine?"
"It's alive," said the fish. "Maybe it will tell us something more that we need to know. Maybe it won't. Either way, that's our price for your son."
They barely reached the boy in time, but seconds later Jack and George were back on the fishing boat.
That evening, Jack told his wife what had happened. "At least no one has taken the important part," she said.
Jack sighed. "Maybe if someone did, the Witch would stop bothering me."
"Tonight," said Jack's wife, "George sleeps in our bed with us. And will do so, until the Witch gives up."
Jack doubted it would do any good, but he saw no other option.
Sure enough, several days later, Jack and his wife woke to find George gone. This time, the note read, "You will marry me and father my child. Or else your son will not survive the day. He is on top of the wreck of the Reinhardt; and petrified with the ship. Obey me and I can reverse it until sunset but, after that, it is over. Your son will be stone as surely as is my first husband for all eternity."
Before his wife could say anything, Jack Stoneleg had left the room, as quickly as he could on one stone and one coral leg. Again, he took the train to Stoneship Park Station, where he got off and made for the Reinhardt;. He wasn't sure what he could even try to do, but if there was anything that could be done for his son, it would be found in the ship.
He went first to the control room. He searched outward from there, hoping to find his son. Try as he might, he could not find the boy and, late in the afternoon, he returned to the control room.
He saw the witch's husband there, petrified, even as the man's hand still rested on the controls that had set off that first atomic bomb used in wartime. Despite the distress over his son, Jack was moved by this meeting. He saluted, careful not to knock himself out with his stone arm.
Then a voice whispered, little more than a gust of air, "Is that you, Jack?"
Jack almost didn't answer. Then, he said, "Major?"
"Aye, me. Tell me, Jack, what has happened? How long has it been?"
Surprised, Jack found there was nothing he could do but to answer the ghostly voice of his former commander. He told the major it had been twenty years, and that the Nazis had surrendered within months of the Reinhardt; incident and the Japanese soon after that. Then, he told the Major why he had returned.
There was silence, until Jack feared the Major would not answer. Finally, he said, "Aye. I thought that might happen. Luckily, I had a trick prepared. I saved a little of myself against such an event. And for the possibility that I might return to life."
"Can I save my son?" asked Jack. "What must I do?"
"Listen carefully," said the Major. "For I have but a little breath saved. There was a second bomb on board. Set it off and I may be able to control it to turn stone back to flesh. First, though, bring your son here -- I'll tell you where he is. I may be able to swim out of this wreck, but your son will have a harder time. Run to the deck with him when you're done, before the water comes in."
"What about the Nazis? Won't they return to flesh."
"Aye, that they will. However, they did not know how to save their breaths for twenty years and suffocated long ago. As for your son, he is so newly petrified that he will still survive."
"One more question," said Jack. "Why hasn't your wife ever freed you from here?"
There was a dry, airy chuckle from the Major. "Perhaps she knew I was still alive, perhaps she did not. Truth be told, we were not getting along. Likely she was glad to see me go. I hope that after all this time, she'll be happy to see me again. Now, get your son. I have breath enough to tell you where, then give you instructions to set off the bomb, when you get back. After that, if you do not succeed, I will be as dead as these Nazis."
Jack followed the Major's orders. Soon he was back with his son. The major whispered the orders and Jack set off the second atomic bomb.
"RUN!" yelled the Major with his last breath. Jack lifted his son under his stone arm and ran on his stone and coral legs. His legs did not tire as he ran; nor did his stone arm ache, carrying his son. He reached the deck with time to spare.
Then he turned and held George to face the blast that would turn the both of them back to flesh. Jack had been through a few explosions in his time, but this was more frightening than all before, in that he did not -- could not -- take cover, or his son would be lost.
When the blast came, it was stronger than Jack expected. It drove him back, but then he braced himself, left leg forward and right back. The force rolled over them and Jack felt sensation return to his right arm and felt his son's stony body turn flesh again. His coral leg likewise became flesh and his right leg...
His right leg started to turn back to flesh. But the blast moved past, and he felt the leg, placed too far back to receive the full force, return to stone.
There was a great creak under him, as the Reinhardt; returned to metal, then began to collapse. With all the strength he had left, Jack leapt for the shore, his son still under his arm. As they landed, there was a great roar and the ship fell apart and sank into the river.
"What happened, Daddy?" asked George.
"I'll tell you later," said Jack, trying to catch his breath.
Then George began to cry.
"It's all right, George," Jack said, hugging his son to him. "Everything is all right now."
"I know," said the little boy. "But I'm still scared."
Jack saw the Major pull himself ashore from out of the wreckage in the river. He looked around, saw Jack, and nodded. From where he still sat on the ground, Jack returned the nod with a salute.
"Everything's all right, George," Jack repeated. "No one's going to keep you from me again."
Illustration by Kimberlee Rettberg