Arya grimaced and pulled the end of her sleeve further down, trying to hide the purple welt that was blossoming over the back of her hand. She made a quick glance across to spy the rest of the small circle of girls - Sansa and Jeyne sitting across from her, happily stitching away, whispering and giggling about boys, and rumors that the King might be coming to visit Winterfell. More like they were giggling about rumors that the King's children might be coming, and his eldest, the royal Prince Joffrey. She couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Boys were stupid. The only thing more stupid than boys however, was needlework. She huffed at the piece of cloth in front of her again. What was the point in sewing flowers into fabric anyway?
'Arya Stark,' Septa Mordane tutted. 'How on earth do you expect to see what you're doing with your sleeve in the way?' She hovered over Arya and quickly reached down and tugged the sleeve away.
'Gods be good, child. Wherever did you get that bruise?'
'I caught my hand in the door this morning,' she lied, catching herself by surprise with how easily the fiction had slipped from her tongue. Sansa looked up and almost scowled at her. She might have been silly enough to moon over boys and pretty dresses, but Arya knew even she wasn't so stupid as to know it was a lie.
Septa Mordane sighed and tutted again. 'I pray to the Mother and the Crone for you child, but I'm beginning to wonder if the Seven have any power left in the North anymore.'
'May I go, Septa?'
'Not until you've done at least one more section of satin stitch.'
Arya wanted to protest, but knew that it was quicker to comply, forcing the thread in a hurried fashion, making a poor attempt, even by her own standards. Whether she'd done it fast or slow wouldn't have mattered, the result would be the same. The Septa scolded her but sent her on her way, regardless. Good, she thought. That had been her plan all along anyway, leaving her free to do other things.
She checked the back of her hand as she shuffled across the yard and towards the keep and tower where her room was. The mottle on her hand had grown a darker shade, reminding her of yesterday's attempts to heft the wooden tourney sword in the enclosed space. It had been heavier than she expected, and more difficult to conceal beneath her skirts as she'd stolen it from the yard before supper, stowing it away. She was sick of watching Bran being taught how to swing a sword and nock an arrow, or watching the drills that Ser Rodrik put her older brothers through. It wasn't fair. Part of her wanted to be proud of that bruise.
As she jogged up the twisting stairs, catching her skirts at the front often, threatening to trip herself in her haste, she didn't notice the figure standing at her doorway until she was right in front of it. Jon leaned casually by the door, a short wooden tourney sword hanging from his hand. It didn't reach the floor for his height. It was a short sword meant for younger boys like Bran. Like the one she'd stolen. Like the one she'd hidden under her bed where no one would find it. Or so she'd thought.
'Ser Rodrik has just sent Bran to chores for failing to store the tourney swords away after their training yesterday. Only Bran swears they were all accounted for.' He idly let the sword dangle from left to right like a pendulum.
'That's mine,' she blurted out. 'Give it back.'
'Oh? And what need does Arya Stark have of a tourney sword?'
She lunged forward to take it off him and he grabbed her wrist with lightning speed. He unveiled the welt on the back of her hand; one he'd noticed at breakfast. It hadn't taken long to put two and two together when Bran had loudly protested his innocence in the yard. Arya was never far away when swords and bows were brought out, something her mother found horrifying, but her father took in with a modicum of amusement. As well tell Bran to stop climbing the walls of the Great Keep as you could tell Arya to stop taking an interest in weapons. He had to admire her tenacity to have smuggled it all the way up here without being seen. Arya Underfoot, except when she didn't want to be seen.
'Are there rats in the tower that you need to defend yourself against?' he asked. His question was met with defiant silence. He indicated the door with his eyes. 'You try swinging a sword in there and you're like to get hurt.'
Arya reached out for it but he held it aloft and just out of her reach. Her expression turned stony. 'Give it back or I'll tell father you were in my room.'
He smirked. 'And I'll tell father that you stole a sword and let Bran take the blame for it.' He wouldn't, and Arya knew it, but she dare not take the chance. Her mother would be livid, but she couldn't know for sure how her father might react.
'It's not fair,' she huffed. 'Why can't I be allowed to lean how to fight? I'm older than Bran.'
He slipped the light wooden sword through his belt and leaned back against the door frame. 'Sword fighting is not for ladies.'
Arya scowled at him. 'I'm not a lady.'
Jon laughed. 'No. On that much we're agreed. How many other bruises are you hiding? Half a wonder you didn't break anything.'
Only the one, she thought, remembering how she'd forgotten about the dressing table when she'd spun too quickly, the pommel of the sword jabbing into her stomach, winding her. Her room was far too narrow, with too many obstacles. It didn't help that Nymeria had thought it a game, tugging and chewing on the end of the sword when it came within her reach. If she'd been allowed to practice outside it wouldn't have happened.
She looked up at him, her gaze hopeful. 'You could teach me. Or Robb,' she added, though not sure Robb would like the idea any more than the rest of her family. Only Jon was different. Jon would understand.
'And what would I tell father when you came to supper looking like a whipped dog?'
'I'd be good at it, I promise! I'd train every day.'
Jon smiled at her and knelt down, bringing himself to her level. 'Swords are for winning fights when you've got nothing else to fight with.' He stroked her hair. 'What's more important is learning to use your mind to beat your opponent. Father says a good fight is one where no blood is drawn. Practice being smart and you won't need a sword.'
Arya frowned, not sure exactly what it was Jon meant. 'But what if I have to defend myself against someone? Someone with a sword? Old Nan says that the Wildling women beyond the Wall learn how to fight same as the men.'
'You're a Stark of Winterfell, not a Wildling. And Old Nan tells a lot of stories about things that aren't true.' He looked back at her and saw the look of abject disappointment on her face.
'If you're ever in need of protecting, I'll be there to look after you. And Father, and Robb, Ser Rodrik, and Jory, even Hodor. And Ghost. Now,' he said, standing back up, 'go wash you face and head down for supper. I'll return this and we'll speak no more of it. Next time though, I might let Father paddle you with it.'
As he began wending his way down the stairs, light footsteps fading, Arya spun and called out to him.
'What about Bran?'
'Scrubbing a few pots will be good for him. Sometimes we all have to shoulder the burden for something in which we're blameless.'