"Liayna," he said, hoping to stop her before she moved off. He hesitated a moment before wrapping her in a gentle hug, careful of the swell of her stomach between them. "Thank you," he told her again. Though a little unsure what he felt about their mother, he was truly grateful to know her and to know that she was family.
Drawn into an unexpected hug, Liayna smiled, embracing him a little more tightly than he dared to embrace her. "Thank your brother," she told him softly. "Conall is the one who persuaded me to speak. I did not know what to do, until he told me."
Rory arched a brow, a little surprised not only by the news that it had been Conall's idea to tell him, but also that she referred to him as his brother - not by blood, certainly, but as Liayna's chosen mate, he was linked to him through her, just as much family as she was. "I will thank him later," he promised as he drew back from her embrace. "Stay safe, sister, and take care of my niece."
"And you, little brother," she answered him, stepping back through the snow. "Come find us in the vanguard, when you are done." She smiled at him, and turned, breaking into a gentle run to catch up with the column where they had left it, intent on keeping her promise to look after his aera for him.
He nodded. "I will," he promised, though by the time he said it, she was already hurrying away from him to catch up to Conall and Ariana. Would she tell Ariana what she had just told him, or would she leave that for him to share? Whatever she decided, he would find out soon enough. He watched until she disappeared among the ranks of warriors, men and women alike, Actran and clansmen, before turning to find the wagons at the back of the group.
The Wild Ones had, for the most part, integrated themselves among the Arctrans on the long march, spread evenly between the ranks as they headed south. But their wagons were not unprotected. Twenty-eight of the Goddess-sworn, the elite warriors of whom Liayna was a member, guarded those wagons, and those who walked with them. Kari was there, undisputed leader of the nomads who had the power to hold back the false magics of Skarran wizards and their ilk. And Arora was there, too, keeping pace with one of the wagons, spinning tales to keep the children amused as they traveled through the long winter.
The snow crunched under Rory's feet as he made his way through the ranks, a little amazed when both Arctrans and Wild Ones moved to allow him passage, some of them even whispering among themselves or nodding respectfully as he passed. He had never really spent much time with the people without Ariana by his side, and he was surprised to find that most of them seemed to know who he was and deferred to him without question. It wasn't difficult to find the wagons, recognizing both Kari and Arora on sight. He wasn't sure what they might think of this meeting of his, but he wanted no regrets. Whether his mother wanted to know him or not would be up to her now. He drew a breath to gather his courage before pushing on to greet them both. "Lady," he greeted Kari first with a respectful incline of his head before turning to Arora. "Doma, if you would, may I have a word with you, please?"
Kari, perched high on the wagon, cackled in greeting, her ugly face creased into a happy smile as she nodded and waved to Rory in answer to his respectful inclination to her. She glanced to Arora as the young man's attention turned to the mother who thought he did not know about her, and reached down, speaking quickly in the old speech as she gathered the youngest of the children onto her lap to continue the storytelling.
Given little choice in the matter, Arora turned her own eyes onto Rory, pausing to allow the wagon to pass on ahead of her. "As you wish, Lord Consort," she answered him, giving no indication of their relationship as she inclined her own head in reply.
He waited for the wagons to pass to offer them a little bit of privacy, then waved her onward so they could continue walking, so that they didn't fall too far behind. They weren't quite at the end of the group, as a few warriors had fallen back to take up the rear, not only to guard the wagons, but to guard both Arora and Rory, both personages of great import to the group as a whole. Rory winced as she addressed him in such a formal fashion, but then he had done the same. "I have a name," he said, chancing a look at her. "A name much like yours," he added, watching her for a reaction.
The barest flicker of a sad smile touched her lips as he pointed out the similarity in their names, knowing better than he did just why that was the case. "Such is the way of the world," Arora said quietly. "There are many who share a pleasing sound in their names. I imagine there will be a great many Arianas, and Rorys, among the next generation of Arctrans, in honor of the queen."
He thought he noticed a hint of sadness in her smile, and his heart softened, not wanting to cause her any pain. Liayna had tried to explain why his mother had left them both behind, but he needed to hear it from her. "I think there is more to it than that, but perhaps this is not the time to discuss such things," he told her, thinking this conversation might be one better discussed in private, but that meant it would have to wait until they made camp later.
Arora's pale eyes found him as they walked, concern for the son who did not know her in her expression. "Do you wish me to visit yourself and the queen when we make camp tonight?" she asked him gently. "You have questions to put to a Doma of the clans?" She might have asked why he didn't put those questions to Kari, since he knew the old woman better than others, but then, she knew Kari. Straight answers were not her forte.
"Yes, if you don't mind, I think that would be best," he replied, feeling curious eyes on them. Even if it was only his imagination, he thought it would be better to talk in private, where neither the Arctrans or the Wild Ones would overhear. He wasn't sure how many of them knew already or guessed, but he assumed Kari, at least, knew the truth, and he wanted to give Arora a chance, not only to explain, but to tell him on her own. That was hardly going to happen here, even if they were lingering near the rear.
"Then I shall come to you at night fall, Lord Consort," she assured him, inclining her head respectfully. She was very good at pretending, it seemed; how long had she spent watching him from afar, knowing he might never know of her? How long had it been before Liayna had discovered her?
This time it was his turn to frown, debating whether or not to insist again that she call him by his given name - a name she knew very well. "Very well," he replied, going along with her ruse, not wanting to give her secret away, until and unless she agreed. "After the evening meal. I will see you then," he told her, with an air of authority he was going to have to get used to.
"As you wish." She took the authority he drew around him with gentle respect - the respect of an equal, no more or less. As a Doma, she led her own clan; she knew how difficult these first months of power could be for him. "After the evening meal, I will come."
"Thank you," he replied, inclining his head respectfully to her in turn. Outwardly, he might have appeared calm and composed and she might have no idea what it was he wanted to discuss, but on the inside, he was a tangle of confusion and nervousness, realizing he'd have to break the news to Ariana before Arora visited that evening.
There was nothing more for him to say or do until they made camp for the evening, and so he turned and made his way back through the lines of marching men and women to rejoin Ariana.
Arora watched him go, lengthening her stride to catch up to the wagons in his wake, her brow creased with a frown as she considered what had been said. Kari's gnarled hand touched her shoulder as the old woman leaned down from her perch. "Some truths cannot be hidden forever," she told the younger woman gently, her speech clearer in the old tongue. "To know where you are going, you must know from whence you have come."
Arora nodded thoughtfully, patting the old woman's hand. There was wisdom in Kari that she would never argue with. Perhaps it was time for this secret to see the light. Perhaps the Goddess would grant her the chance to know her son, now that he had found his place.