Ella staggered through the snow, the shackles around her wrists rattling as she pushed against its frozen grasp. Men were yelling somewhere behind her, but their words were lost, scattered on the wind that burned through her torn brown dress. She wiped drops of the gaol warden’s blood from her cheek and recalled the cracking of his head as she crushed it with her chains. She gagged and stumbled, flattening a patch of white icepetal flowers.
A bang like a crack of lightning sounded, and then another and another. Ella stopped. Fresh blood dribbled from her chest, layering the flowers beneath in red. Intense pain hit her, as if her whole body was screaming, and she faltered, clutching at the bloody wound in her chest. The pine-dotted landscape blurred and she fell backwards into the flower patch.
‘Please,’ she begged to the sky. Tears ran from her eyes, freezing against the dirt on her face. ‘Please, Great Goddess, don’t let me die.’
‘Then I will save you.’ A woman in a white dress materialised before Ella. She stood with the posture of a noble woman, unaffected by the whipping of her long fair hair in the wind. Ella tried to focus as she stared into the woman’s bright green eyes; eyes coloured just like her own.
‘Please,’ Ella whispered.
The woman stepped closer and, kneeling down, laid her right hand on Ella’s forehead. ‘When the seed blooms, your time is up.’
A tornado of snow and petals enveloped Ella, shaping a flower bud of blood-laced snow around her body. As the barrier solidified and the world disappeared from view, she thought she saw the woman smile.
* * *
Ella gasped and dropped the pile of books she was carrying. The snowy landscape was gone, replaced by an enclosed area with wooden furniture along the walls.
Her room. Home. Safe.
Orange sunset shone through the window beside her bed and, straining her hearing, Ella could make out the sounds of the street-side stalls closing for the day as horses clip-clopped on the cobblestones.
She hesitantly touched her chest. No blood, no wound, not even a scar.
The bookshelf in front of her was empty, though she had filled it yesterday before her arrest. Vibrant orange and yellow lilies, her favourites, sat in pots along its top.
Feeling an itch on her shoulder she pulled up the short sleeve of her dress. Curled around her skin was a thin green vine topped by a shrivelled white flower bud. She yanked at it, but it wouldn’t budge.
A knock sounded on the front door downstairs.
Ella slipped out of her brown dress, no longer torn or stained but covered in the memory of her death in the snow, and threw on a green one from her cupboard. Taking a deep breath, she proceeded from the wooden stairs to the front door and opened it.
Three men stood on her doorstep. Two guards wearing metal armour with muskets slung over their shoulders flanked Sir Caleb Horncraft. The young captain wore the official green and brown uniform of the law and stood with shoulders straight. His short brown hair was slicked back and a handful of thin scars lined his cheeks, but there was a kindness in his eyes. A gentleness Ella had fallen for years ago.
‘Ella…’ he said, his face softening.
‘Wait… Caleb? What’s going on? Why are you here again?’
‘Again?’ He pursed his lips. ‘El-Miss Rosebane, you are under arrest on charges of witchcraft. We will take you to a cell while you await trial.’
Gasps and murmurs could be heard from a small crowd of passers-by who had gathered around.
Ella blinked. ‘W-What? I’m not a w-‘ she leaned in closer and whispered, ‘witch.’
‘We have substantial evidence to suggest that you are. For now, you will need to come with us.’
Neighbours and friends began to call out, soft at first, then louder.
‘She’s a witch!’
‘N-No, I have done nothing wrong,’ Ella replied, backing into her house.
Caleb quickly stepped forward. ‘Miss Rosebane, if you’re innocent then you have nothing to fear.’ His deep blue eyes smiled softly.
One guard produced chains and cuffs and locked her wrists together. The familiarity of the weight was unsettling. The other reached for a strip of cloth that Ella had seen them use to gag women they feared would cast spells.
‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ Caleb said and waved it away. He turned back to Ella. ‘While you are held, my men will search your house. Follow me.’
The streets filled with people who whispered and pointed as Caleb and Ella walked by. Women on balconies of tightly packed houses clutched their babies to their chest, while young men on the streets scampered backwards, uttering prayers to the Great Goddess.
Caleb opened the door to a small stone building and led Ella down the stairs. Moss and grime covered the walls, and the stench of unwashed prisoners hung in the air. He unlocked one cell door and motioned Ella inside, locking it behind her. Only a tiny window at the top of the wall let in any light or fresh air.
‘They’ll look for evidence this afternoon and have a trial tonight,’ Caleb began. ‘You know women accused as witches aren’t allowed to defend themselves, just in case they curse the judge. But I promise I’ll do whatever I can to get you out of this cell soon, Ella. Try to endure the smell until then.’ The corners of his mouth turned up into an almost-smile.
She nodded and slumped down against the uneven wall, head in her hands as he left.
‘How can this be happening again?’ she whispered, scrunching her eyes shut. Her sleep was restless and filled with nightmares of the cold snow and bullets piercing her body.
Ella jumped, woken by a clanging metal sound that reverberated around the stone basement. An old man was unlocking her cell; the same man she had bashed over the head yesterday in order to escape. Dim light of an overcast morning shone through the window, and she could hear the sound of rushing wind. She shivered. The snowstorm would be moving in soon.
By the time it hit, Ella was led to the stake.
She’d seen women accused of witchcraft before; the whole town would turn out, even children. Witches were tied to a tall wooden pole in the town square, kindling and logs at their feet, and then set alight. The fire was only put out once their bodies were charred and their screeching silenced.
In the burning cold and screaming wind the square was empty. Two guards escorting Ella pushed her towards the stake, tying her to it with a rough hemp rope.
‘Please!’ she begged. ‘I’m not a witch! I haven’t done anything!’
The guards said nothing. Once they had secured her they stepped back and a third man, Captain Caleb, came with torch in hand.
Their eyes met for a moment, and then he looked away. ‘Ella Rosebane. You have been found guilty of witchcraft and are sentenced to death by burning. May the Great Goddess have mercy on your soul.’
‘Caleb! No! You know I’m not a witch!’
He looked at her and his face hardened. ‘My men found a magical circle etched into your bedroom floor. It was splattered with blood and crushed icepetal flowers.’
‘What? I don’t know about any of that! Please Caleb! You have to believe I didn’t do that.’
He shook his head. ‘You are a witch and you will face justice.’ He bent, unable to meet her frightened eyes. ‘Goddess forgive me.’ And then he lit the wood.
Ella struggled against her bonds. ‘Caleb! Caleb, help me!’
He stepped away from the pyre and stared at his boots. Regret? Disappointment? Ella couldn’t read his face.
An intense heat crept slowly upwards. She screamed as the fire consumed her feet, slowly melting the skin away. The fire caught her dress, setting it alight and engulfing her body in a blistering pain. Smoke entered her nose and mouth, choking her.
Over the next hour, Ella slowly burned to death. The wind would put the fire out, only for a guard to come and light it again. Her skin blackened and the stench of burning hair and skin enveloped her senses. The fire and wind competed against each other as Ella drifted in and out of consciousness.
As her eyes shut, she heard a female voice carried on the wind. ‘Return again.’
Unaffected by the fire, a second flower bud on her shoulder shrivelled up, and then the world went dark.
* * *
Ella screamed when she opened her eyes, brain still overwhelmed by a pain that no longer existed. She was on her bed, alive and unharmed. Orange light filtered through the window and a knock sounded at the door. Sweat pouring down her face she began to hyperventilate, coughing with the sudden intake of air. Turning on her side she vomited in the floor, gasping through watering eyes.
‘Miss Rosebane?’ she heard Caleb call from outside.
Trying to steady her breathing, Ella saw the reason for her guilt. In front of the bookshelf on the floor was a trail of blood in the shape of a flower. As she stood, she spotted a bud out of the corner of her eye and pulled up the sleeve of her dress. Beneath it, the vine-like flower had grown, wrapping its way down her upper arm. Two shrivelled buds sat on its side, while a third living one adorned its top.
‘Miss Rosebane?’ The knock was louder this time.
Wiping away traces of sick, Ella climbed onto her bed and yanked open the second-storey window. She looked over the edge to the back alley below. Empty. A moment later, she jumped, landing on the hard stone below. Pain exploded in her left leg.
‘Hey! There she is!’ A voice called from the street.
Ella hobbled down the alley, away from the main road. She ducked around the corner and pushed past the crates and barrels that littered the tight passageway. Residents peered out their windows, watching the chase unfold.
‘Stop!’ A guard behind her yelled.
Men and women with surprised faces edged away as Ella stumbled onto a back street. As she glanced back, someone stuck their foot out and she tripped, sprawling face-first onto the rough cobblestones. She rolled onto her back, blood obscuring her vision. Struggling to her feet, she limped down the road. The crowd retreated as the blood-covered woman moved amongst them.
A bang sounded, then screams.
Ella fell forward as the bullet penetrated her back, smashing her face into the ground again. Blood flooded from her forehead and nose, swimming into her eyes and painting the tips of her fair hair.
‘Move aside!’ she heard a familiar voice yell. Caleb.
A woman in a white dress knelt down beside her; the woman from the snow.
‘Don’t give up. Try once more.’
* * *
Ella sprang to action. She threw open the door to her bedroom and ran down the stairs. Taking a left, she entered her small kitchen and grabbed the biggest knife she owned. A knock sounded.
Caleb. The man who burned her. She approached the door, weapon at the ready.
Ella swung the door open, the faces of two guards and Caleb greeting her again. Without hesitation, she leapt forward, jamming her knife into the captain’s chest.
‘Ella…’ he spluttered, eyes wide.
‘Why didn’t you help me!’
A woman passing by screamed.
For a moment, the two guards were stunned. Ella reached for the sword at Caleb’s side as he fell limp, and swung it at one guard. He side-stepped her clumsy, untrained blow while the second guard drew his own weapon, jamming it into Ella’s back.
Her eyes widened and she fell forward, her blood and Caleb’s trickling together between the cobblestones.
‘Please… just let me die…’ Ella sobbed as her consciousness slipped away.
Ella awoke in bed, staring at her wooden ceiling.
‘Why is this happening to me?’ she whispered.
Her eyes wandered to her right arm. The plant growing there had extended its reach, twirling all the way to her wrist. Four shrivelled buds had sprouted from the central stem, but one that touched the back of her hand had flowered with petals red like blood.
The seed had bloomed. Her chances were over. Finally, she could die.
Eyes heavy, she pulled herself from bed and wandered down the stairs. She returned to the kitchen, grabbing the same knife she had killed Caleb with, then plodded back up to her room.
She heard a knock from downstairs, but closed her bedroom door. She placed her knife on top of the dresser and, with a grunt, shoved it in front of the door. Picking up the knife, she sat down on her bed and felt its weight in her hand. With a deep breath she raised it, pointing its tip at her stomach.
‘You can still escape!’ a soft voice spoke and a familiar woman materialised in front of Ella. ‘The seed has bloomed and my magic is at an end, but you have this final chance.’
Ella’s hand began to shake. ‘Who are you?’
The woman smiled, lips pressed together.
‘Why didn’t you help me? You could have rescued me!’
‘I can’t interfere directly, but I know you can do it. I know you can.’
‘I don’t care. I can’t go on like this.’ Ella raised the knife.
Ella hesitated and stared at the hair-breadth distance between the knife and her heart. A moment passed, and she lowered it. The woman released a breath and knelt down in front of Ella.
‘Did you put that there?’ Ella asked, pointing to the bloody flower on the floor.
‘Yes. It was a result of my magic when I first saved you in the snow and bound the flower to your body.’
‘W-Why did you do this to me? Why couldn’t I just die?’
‘I need you alive in the future when your powers awaken. What you’ve been through is unfortunate, but necessary.’
‘Unfortunate?’ Ella trembled. ‘This is all your fault!’
She turned the knife around and stabbed. It entered the woman’s chest and blood bloomed across her white dress. The woman staggered back, clutching the blade. A tear fell from her eye as she pointed to Ella before collapsing to the ground. Ella felt a sudden pang of pain and saw a hole open in her own chest, right where she had struck the woman.
Her head span and she slumped onto the bed. The woman’s eyes went blank and the flower around Ella’s arm crumbled to dust. Ella could see it now, the reason for the woman’s familiarity. The woman looked just like her. Older, but the same. Ella gasped, struggling to pull air into her lungs and instead coughed up blood.
As her eyes closed, Ella wondered if she could turn back time too.