Friends & Family Chapter 3.1: A Last Goodbye

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3.1  A Last Goodbye (part one)

The tap on his door was soft, but it still startled Oz.

Only one person knocks like that, he thought.

Becca. His foster mother had arrived at The Twisted Serpent much sooner than Oz had expected and was standing outside his door. Oz's heart raced as he pulled a fresh shirt over his head. What was he going to tell her? How could he face her, knowing he was the reason Hamm had died? Even though he was dressed and ready, he needed a second to regain his composure. So he said, "One minute," and hurried to the mirror to check his appearance.

As soon as Oz glanced at his reflection, he wished he hadn't. He was a mess. Even after holding his face in the basin of cold water, his eyes were still red and his cheeks swollen.

She's going to know I've been crying, Oz thought. Why can't I be stronger? I'm all she has now.

"Ozwell?" Becca's lilting voice questioned him through the door. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, sorry. Just finishing getting dressed," Oz lied as he hurried to the door. "Sorry," he repeated as he turned the knob and pulled. "It's just ..."

And then the door was open, and suddenly Becca stood before him, smiling. Becca, his only family. His last parent out of four. She peered up at him with red-rimmed eyes and puffy cheeks much like the ones he had seen in his mirror. She raised her right hand and placed it on his cheek. "Oh, Oz," she said, "it's only been a week. But my, that one week has aged you."

"B-B-Becca ..."

Oz tried to talk but couldn't get past her name. So he reached down and wrapped his arms around his foster mom. She returned his hug, immersing him in the warm scent of cookies and baked apples and sunshine and everything pleasant in his world. But while she held her cheek against his shoulder, she sniffled. The sound of Becca crying, always happy Becca, twisted Oz's heart like a sodden dish rag. A warm torrent exploded from his eyes.

They remained like that for what seemed an eternity. Half in, half out of the room and drenching each other's clothes with tears. But finally, Oz worked up the nerve to talk. He snuffled then said, "I-I'm sorry, B-Becca. So s-sorry. It's all my fault. He'd still be here if it weren't for me. He'd s-still be with you, with us."

Becca pulled back and grasped Oz by both shoulders. She stared into his eyes with the glare she saved for her rare moments of anger.

"Ozwell Stahl! What sort of Dragon dung are you blubbering on about? How can you think you are somehow to blame for this? Deckard told me everything. He said some awful hell beasts, giant wargs, attacked the great feast, and Hamm fought a black one to the death. How can you be responsible for that?"

"I-I, the wargs," Oz started. "The wargs attacked because of me. To get to me. They're controlled by a dark magician, a sorcerer, someone called the Malamagus. He marked Hamm and Malcolm and Lord Hofstra so that the wargs would attack them."

"Well, there you go, Oz. You clearly aren't to blame. So stop thinking you are!"

Oz blinked, confused by Becca's answer. "Why do you say that?"

"If Hamm had been the only one marked, I might understand your concern. But who's Lord Hofstra to you? He and Hamm have been at odds for years. And who is this Malcolm? Quite frankly, I don't even know him. And since those two were marked as well as Hamm, doesn't it seem unlikely that this was at all about you? A boy who only recently joined the world beyond our forge? Who's barely a paladin?"

"But Avery said . . ."

"Avery? I should have known. That man needs to bother off. He means well, I'm sure. But for someone so wise, he often misses the mark when it comes to life outside his library and his dusty old books."

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