Mountain - Part 6 - Bread and Salt

Nella ran through the Godswood, jumping over roots and vaulting downed trees. Unlike her sister Melicent, Nella had never met a tree she couldn’t climb. Two girls could hardly be more different. Nella was the younger by two years. Where Melicent took after their mother with green eyes and flowing chestnut hair, Nella resembled her father’s side of the family, as she had inherited the Karstark’s deep brown eyes and hair, so thick and dark it was nearly black. Despite their differences, they were extremely close friends. Nella, the bolder, was extremely protective of her sister.

She’d woken up when the sun was just about to come up. Melicent was gone, not in the window seat, not in the small sitting room that they shared with the other girls. She had begun to feel a flutter of worry in her tummy then. Where in the world could she have gone in this terrible place, in the middle of the night? It felt wrong to Nella somehow. She dressed quickly and pinned her hair back without waking Mynne their ladies maid. She left their chambers quietly, turning to the left, as her instinct told her that her sister would have gone back in the direction they’d come from.

She came across Luthor, still on guard at the end of the passage. When pressed, he told her that Melicent had gone to the Godswood to pray. Relieved that Melicent’s intention was to pray, not to get into some kind of trouble, she decided to go and find her. Luthor found a servant to escort her to the Godswood. It was a long way there, It’s a long way to anywhere at Harrenhal. By the time she’d arrived at the entrance to the Godswood, the sun was beginning to rise.

She followed the path, knowing Melicent would have sought out the Heart Tree. Of the two, Melicent was more likely to pray. Nella found all that sitting still to be a bit trying, but she did prefer the Old Gods to the new. At least the Old Gods could be worshiped outdoors under the trees. That was the way it should be, she thought. As she walked, she thought about losing Melicent to this place, and to the Mountain That Rides. It simply could not happen. She was unsure how her father would remedy the situation though. She worried about the risk of angering Lord Clegane. That, she knew, would be a very foolish mistake.

She was so deep in thought that when she emerged into the clearing, it took her several moments to make sense of what she saw there. It was her sister, she realized, with her arms around the neck of the biggest man she’d ever seen. As she stood there in shock, his hands moved to Melicent’s backside and pressed her hard against him. To Nella’s dismay, her sister let out a little moan and pushed into him, as the kiss deepened.

Nella took a staggered step back and her foot came down on a small branch. It cracked and the huge man leaped to his feet and drew his sword. Nella stood frozen, staring at them for a moment. Melicent’s expression was one of surprise, which quickly changed to a sad smile. And then it dawned on her. She has done this thing on purpose. He wasn’t forcing her to kiss him, she was a willing participant. She had sealed the marriage agreement. Her sister had sacrificed herself for the rest of them. “You little fool…” Nella spat angrily, and turned and ran back through the Godswood. She had to get away from there before she said more. She had to find her father.

She had never thought it would be possible to be this angry with her sister. They were such good friends, so close. Years ago she had assigned herself the role of protector. Melicent was fragile, delicate. She needed looking after. But if there was one thing Melicent was not, it was deceitful. Going behind Nella’s back, not to mention their parents, and sealing the agreement was against everything she’d have ever expected from her sister.

Which, she supposed, was why she had been successful. No one would have ever suspected Melicent of anything so foolish. Or so brave. Because even as furious as Nella was, she was also proud of her sister's bravery. Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides, was the most feared man in Westeros. To commit herself to him…and to be so bold as to kiss him, as huge and menacing as he was… Most girls would have been too frightened to do such a thing.  It was said to marry Lord Gregor was a death sentence, as his first two wives had learned. Melicent had somehow discovered a courage that Nella didn’t know she had.

Upon reaching the keep, she entered past guards who wore the familiar Clegane sigil, the three black dogs on a field the yellow of autumn grass. They stared as she passed, but made no move to stop or question her. She tried to find her way back to the hall which contained her bedchamber, as her parents’ chamber was also nearby. Instead she quickly got turned around and had to ask several servants for help. Finally she found herself emerging into the Hall of the Thousand Hearths. To her great relief, her cousins, their younger sister Jeyne and her mother were all there, breaking their fast.

“Where is father?” she called out as she hurried along the hall to the table where they sat. She tried to calm herself, so as to not worry her mother. It would be no good to upset mother before speaking with father. She knew nothing could be done to break the contract, but it would be better if her father were to hear it from her and was able to break the news to mother in private. She would not take this well, Nella knew.

“Nella, there you are. Where is your sister? Come and eat something with us.” As Nella drew closer she saw there were boiled eggs, those little fish that Melicent hated so much, fried bread, bacon, ham, cheese, apples, grapes and porridge with honey. There was watered wine, Arbor Red, as well as cider and ale to drink. She noticed a bowl of salt on the table as well.

“I must find father first” she said, “There is something I must ask him.” Her stomach growled.
Her mother’s green eyes narrowed, “Nella, what in the world is the matter with you this morning? Didn’t you sleep well? You look so tired. Sit down, you can speak with your father later.”

“I can’t mother,” Nella said exasperated. “Where is he? I must speak with him now.”

“Speak with whom?” she turned to find her father striding thru one of the many doorways. He was a big man, tall and proud, the silver-white sunburst on his chest stood in stark contrast to the black of his tunic. His hair and beard had gone steely grey, but he was not yet old. His dark eyes though, looked tired. 

Nella sighed with relief, however, she would have preferred to speak with him in private. “With you father, I must speak with you…perhaps in your sitting room…”

Her father looked at her thoughtfully. “I've only just come from there, Nella. We shall speak after I’ve broken my fast. Sit down child, you look pale.” He sat down and reached for a trencher.

“No father! I must speak with you at once!” she snapped. “This cannot wait!” Lord Tomard raised an eyebrow at her. Nella was outspoken it was true, but it was a rare thing for her to directly disrespect her father. She could see the surprise on the faces of her mother & the girls. Her raised voice drew looks from the servants and the other members of House Karstark and House Clegane who were seated at the long tables.

Lord Tomard did not rise. “Then you will say it here and now girl, and by the Gods, lower your voice.” He frowned at her. “And sit down, you’ve made a spectacle of yourself.”

She sighed and sat down across from him. “Father, it’s …it’s about Melicent…”

“Where is your sister?” he asked, looking round as though he’d just realized his second daughter was absent.

Nella opened her mouth to speak, but could not think how to proceed. “Father, Melicent is, or was… she went to the Godswood to pray.” Her father nodded. “So I went after her, to see that she was alright…” She stopped and took a breath. “When I arrived... she was with… Lord Clegane…”

“Oh?” Her father’s brow furrowed and he put down the mug he’d been holding.

Nella took another breath and went on in a rush. Best to get it all out. “She’s kissed him. She knew about his proposal, you see, we heard you and mother talking in your tent. So she went and she kissed him. She was afraid for us…”she trailed off as she saw the looks on her parents’ faces. She’d expected her father to become angry, but instead his face fell and he closed his eyes for a moment. Her mother froze and grew so drawn & pale, Nella was afraid she might faint. Her cousins, Emma and Sarra looked shocked as well. The only one who seemed unaffected was little Jeyne, at seven years, she was too young to grasp the gravity of the situation.

At that moment there was a commotion at the other end of the huge hall. The thick wooden doors flew open to reveal the towering form of Lord Gregor Clegane of Harrenhal. He was massive, tall, broad and well muscled, dressed in wool and boiled leather. Fully armoured, he would be terrifying. A step behind him was her sister, looking extremely small in comparison. A hush came over the hall. He strode the length of the huge space, people scurrying out of his way as he passed. When he reached their table, he stopped and looked over his shoulder, waiting for Melicent to catch up. When she did, he nodded at her approvingly.

He did not smile, but said “Tomard, it has been too long. You are most welcome here.” Father stood and the men shook hands. Her father, normally a large man, looked small next to the Mountain. Lord Tomard stepped back and Clegane rested his hand possessively at the small of Melicent’s back. She did not flinch, in fact, it almost looked to Nella, like her sister shifted a tiny bit closer to the giant. When did she become so brave? Was she always? How did I not notice? 

“We shall break bread together.” The Mountain said, in voice that was deep and gravelly, but not loud. He has no need to be loud. People would listen to him even if he whispered. He gestured Melicent to a place a the end of one of the benches and took the large chair at the head for himself. This was good. By sharing a meal, by sharing bread and salt, he was sending a message that they would be safe as his guests.

Servants came from nowhere and he piled his trencher with food. “You will share my plate, my Lady.” he said to Melicent and she nodded. This surprised Nella, as she would not have expected this man to observe such courtesies. The Mountain ate heartily, finishing at least two or three portions of everything. He drank two tankards of ale, and offered choice bits of food to Melicent. She accepted the morsels, nibbled a few grapes, bits of bread, politely declining the porridge, carefully avoiding the little fish, taking little sips of watered wine. “You do not eat much my Lady.” He observed, frowning. She smiled prettily and accepted a chunk of cheese, a slice of ham, and a wedge of apple. Nella noticed she finished only the piece of apple though. She’s nervous. Melicent loses her appetite when she’s nervous. But is it him she’s frightened of, or is it mother & father’s reaction to what she’s done?

The others ate in silence. It seemed that interrupting Lord Gregor at his breakfast would not be wise. Nella didn’t have much appetite either. She was busy dreading what would come after. When they finished their meal, servants came and quickly cleared the things away, all but the ale, wine and cider. Lord Gregor leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Well Tomard, it seems we have matters to discuss.” he said.

Lord Tomard straightened in his chair. “Girls, leave us for now.” He looked at Melicent. “Not you Melicent. You stay. And Nella…you may as well stay too.” Emma, Sarra & Jeyne & their Septa left the hall, with a servant to escort them to their sitting room. Nella was glad he’d directed her to stay, as that saved her from insisting upon it, if he’d tried to send her off with the girls.

Melicent looked a bit worried, but determined. Her cheeks flushed a little as she straightened her back and held her head up high. Lady Sylva looked pale and distressed, and sat stiffly, wringing her hands. Lord Gregor looked relaxed and content. He has no reason to worry.  

Tomard cleared his throat. “So, Gregor, you wish to marry my daughter…” he said.

“I plan to marry your daughter, Tomard.” Clegane said and smiled wryly. “I sent you my terms. If you want my help, you must join your house to mine. I was a landed Knight. My Lordship is new, not inherited, but gifted to me. The Karstarks are a very old family, dating back the first men. To marry into one of the oldest families in the realm would raise my future sons to a higher position. The alliance benefits you as well. With your House joined to mine, the Lannisters and all their gold, as well as mine, will be behind you. The Boltons and the Iron Men will not stand a chance against our combined forces. Who else is rushing to your aid, Tomard? Who else will back you if I turn you out? Do you have any other old friends who are waiting to help you?”

Lord Tomard picked up his tankard and drank deeply. “No Gregor I do not…and I am grateful to you for your help, truly I am.”

“As you should be.” Lord Clegane nodded. “Then why do I sense hesitation in your manner? Perhaps I imagine it. There is no argument to be made, Tomard. The agreement has been sealed…there was a kiss… and there was a witness…” He turned toward Nella and smiled darkly.

Later, she was not sure what had possessed her to speak, but Nella found herself unable to stop herself from speaking. “My Lord Clegane, I must ask…your father and your sister are said to have died under mysterious circumstances. You have been married before, my Lord, have you not? Twice, I believe, but both your wives are deceased. How did they die Ser?” Her heart was pounding in her chest. Her father looked at her in dismay and her mother covered her mouth with her hand.

“Nella!” Melicent said quietly, “My Lord, she did not mean…you do not have to…”

“I know what she meant.” He growled and leaned forward. “Do you suggest I had something to do with these deaths, girl? I will answer you, but you may be disappointed by what you hear. My father died in a hunting accident. He was gored by a boar. My sister died  of a wasting disease. My first wife fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. It was an accident, and I was unable to reach her in time. I’d have preferred that she did not die, as she was carrying my child at the time.” He reached for the pitcher of ale and refilled his tankard. “My second wife…I killed her, yes.” he said, and took a long drink of ale.

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