Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord, my soul to take.
Amara: Age Ten
As soon as the sisters extinguish the lamps, we were supposed to go to sleep. We were not allowed to get out of bed until the morning. Whispering amongst one another during 'lights out' would earn each of us a flogging. The sisters would monitor the halls, expecting nothing but total silence. Those were the rules, and if you broke the rules, then you would be punished.
I have never known anything different. My twin brother and I were born in the 'Les Bonnes Soeurs Couvent' which in English, translated as The Good Sisters Convent.
Our mother was unmarried and with child when she arrived at the convent, seeking refuge and redemption. Her only crime was that she had fallen in love. Soon after giving birth, she died having suffered a haemorrhage.
She never disclosed the identity of our father, so we were placed into the care of the 'Enfants du Seigneur orphelinat' which in English, translated as The Children Of The Lord Orphanage in the port city of Marseille, which was situated on the southern coast of France.
Boys and girls were usually divided and housed in segregation, but Petr was different from the other children. My brother was born deaf and only I could communicate with him. It wasn't a recognised sign language of any sort, just one that we developed between ourselves. It was also the reason why Petr was still here with me. Nobody wanted the burden of a deaf child. And for once, we were glad.
Our greatest fear was that we would be separated at some point and that I would be left here all alone. We promised that if it happened, we would find each other again one day.
We both promised.
Boys tended not to stay with us for long. They were considered useful and would be placed straight up for adoption. Girls were considered a burden and a financial strain. We were not deemed worthy of an education. Instead, we were taught to cook and clean, learn our place in society, and hope to marry well.
Ten girls shared this room with me. They ranged between the ages of three and fifteen. One of the girls had turned sixteen during the spring. She would be gone by the time I wake-up tomorrow, they always are.
Each young woman who came of age would vanish during the night. It would happen on the same night, every year. The last day of summer. In their place, Sister Mary Agnes would receive a large sum of gold.
Every single time.
As soon as the first-morning sunlight pooled in through the dormitory windows, I noticed the empty bed.
Amara: Age Sixteen.
Another year has passed.
Another empty bed.
Another large sum of gold.
Yet, despite the vast amount of wealth that Sister Mary Agnes received each year, the orphanage saw none of it. The repair list grew longer and longer. Poor Petr could only manage to mend the most basic of things with little or no money at all. The church funds could only extend so far, and mostly we relied on charitable donations.
Petr and I should have been asked to leave already, but we were allowed to work here. In return, we had a roof over our heads and three square meals a day. Petr maintained the grounds and mended what he could, in and around the building. My duty was to cook, clean, and care for the children.
Amara: Age Seventeen.
It was the same situation as always. I woke up to yet another empty bed. When I raised my concerns to the sisters, I was given the same answer: that the young girl had been betrothed to an eligible bachelor, and that her future husband had arranged for her to be transported to his family's estate. The excuse for the large sum of gold was that it was a dowry, paid by the husband and gifted to the convent.
It was the same old story, year after year. Doubt began to creep into my mind, poisoning my thoughts. I struggled to think of a single occasion where the girls had ever left the grounds of the convent to meet with such a suiter. I could think of none in all the time they had been here. Nor had we received any guests who requested their presence. I would have been expected to provide refreshments to any such visitors, and I recalled none. I knew something wasn't right, but I failed to unravel the mystery.
Surely in a place of God, nothing untoward could be happening here?
I placed all my faith in that being true.
Sister Mary Agnes wouldn't sell them to men to gain profit?
I hurried down the halls to where I knew Petr would be working. I usually found him busy mending things. There was an unsettling feeling deep inside me that something wasn't right. I burst open the door to his workroom, only to find him lying unconscious on the floor.
I rushed over to him, immediately falling to my knees at his side. My cries for help echoed down the halls and within moments, some of the sisters came to our assistance and helped me to carry Petr to bed. He was conscious and breathing unevenly, a clear sign that something wasn't right.
One of the local doctors came out of courtesy to the church. He was talking medical nonsense to me so I couldn't understand some of the complex words that he used. My mind was in turmoil, petrified that I was going to lose my brother. The good doctor told the sisters that Petr had contracted a serious illness and that he needed constant bed rest. He assured me that there was a chance of recovery, but that it would be slim.
Petr remained stable throughout the months but his condition wasn't showing any sign of improvement. He never fully regained his strength and was left bedridden and dependent upon me.
Amara: Age Eighteen.
This would be the first year in a while that I would wake up to a room with no empty beds. There have been no girls to turn sixteen this past year. The atmosphere in the orphanage felt peaceful, however, the atmosphere in the convent was incredibly tense. There would be no large deposits of gold being made to Sister Mary Agnes for the first time in a long while and her mood was sullen and grim.
I hurried down to Petr's room, carrying a bowl of soup and some bread on a tray. His condition was deteriorating rapidly. He had grown weaker during the past few days. His strength had all but depleted, meaning that I would need to feed him by hand, as well as wash him, and help him to use the bedpan. We couldn't afford to send him to the hospital.
I was his full-time carer as well as attending to my duties in the orphanage. I needed to maintain a roof over our heads or else I didn't know what I would do. I had been praying for a miracle, yet my prayers had remained unanswered. My faith was fading away, along with my dying brother.
As soon as I entered Petr's room, I was taken back by his appearance. Trying not to reveal the shock on my face, I managed a brave smile, placed the tray down upon the side table and made the sign for food.
Petr managed to return the simple gesture of 'Thank you' but his eyes were showing nothing but pain. Choking down the lump in my throat, I picked up the spoon and began to feed him.
I slipped away once he was sleeping, making my way over to the room where Sister Mary Agnes used as her private office. I had been rehearsing the scenario over and over again in my head, about how I was going to ask her for the money to pay for a doctor. I knew that I had nothing to offer in terms of repayment, but I was so desperate. I had no guarantee that she would even agree to help me.
I stood outside the door to her office, fully prepared to beg. Pride never came into it once. There was no room for it. I had nothing left to live for if Petr died.
"Come in!" Her sharp commanding voice barked from the opposite side of the door.
I opened the door and stepped apprehensively inside. Sister Mary Agnes was a highly intimidating woman. She wasn't known to demonstrate compassion. She hadn't glanced up at me once as I stood awkwardly in front of her desk.
"I was wondering if perhaps I could have a moment of your time, Sister?" I asked, my voice quivering with nerves.
My heart was beating rapidly and my mouth had run dry. All the adrenaline I gathered on the way over to her office was depleting fast. Her cold, icy glare stripped away most of the courage I had left.
"Ask away. You have five minutes and not a moment more. I'm a busy woman, you realise," she spoke sternly, only glancing up for a brief moment, before continuing to scribble down a note on parchment.
"I was wondering if you could help me? I have no-one else to ask. My brother, Petr, needs medicine and I have no money to pay a doctor. I hoped that—" I began to explain our situation that she knew only too well about, but she cut me off mid-sentence.
"Ah, yes, the dying man. I expect he won't last another week. Such a shame too. The poor boy will be better off with the lord. There's no place for a man of such affliction in this cruel world we live in. Of course my dear, I will pray for him. Good day to you," she muttered, nonchalantly. Her voice was devoid of any emotion, much like the expression on her face.
My vision clouded as hot tears stung my eyes. My chest heaved with uncontrollable sobs.
"Affliction? Better off with God? How could you? You call yourself a woman of the lord, yet you sold young girls to benefit yourself. Do you think I don't know what has been happening all these years? My brother may be deaf, Sister Mary Agnes, but I'm certainly not blind. I know you have the means to help us, yet you choose to do nothing!" I shouted, between anguished sobs.
Sister Mary Agnes narrowed her eyes at me during my rant. Her nostrils flared as her chest rose and fell unsteadily. For a moment, I thought she was going to stand to her feet but she seemed to have a second thought. I observed as she relaxed in her chair and pondered her thoughts, then a wry smile manifested across her lips.
"Of course, I will do everything in my power to help you, child. Who may I ask have you spoken to about this theory of yours?" She asked with curiosity, and if I wasn't mistaken, I saw a flash of concern in her eyes.
I knew it.
I swallowed a gulp as I realised I'd been right about her, all along.
"You see, my dear, the money is all gone. The orphanage doesn't pay for itself, you know? Then there's the running of the convent. Everything costs money, my dear. So you see, if I could help you, I would," she explained, with mock pity.
My shoulders slumped as I sobbed. This was my last resort and I'd failed. Petr would surely die and I'd be left dead inside. I was heartbroken and defeated.
Just as I turned to exit the room, she called out to me.
"Wait!" Sister Mary Agnes spoke.
I paused in the doorway, turning my head in her direction.
"There is something, but no. Forget I mentioned it. Go on, be off with you," she muttered, trying to sound as if it was nothing. When in fact she was luring me in like bait.
"What, what is it? I'll do anything, just tell me what I have to do," I sobbed, pleading with desperation. My eyes grew wide as I waited for her to throw me a lifeline.
"You have one choice. Agree to go to the Lycan Island and run the labyrinth. They pay handsomely for females like yourself. That way, Petr can receive the care he needs, to nurse him back to health. It's the only way," she explained as if it was my best and only chance.
"The Lycan island? I thought you said that was all a myth?" I asked, in confusion.
The church had always denied its existence. I believed the stories were just to scare children.
"My child, I assure you those creatures are real. The rules are simple. You have until sunrise to solve the labyrinth and then you can walk free. Fail, and you shall remain on the island as a Lycan bride. Never to return to the mainland," she explained.
"But what of Petr?" I asked, with concern.
"He will benefit from the gold, regardless. Either way, you will save his life. The risk is your freedom. So, my child, what will it be?" She asked, whilst looking me dead in the eye.
I answered without a moment's hesitation.
"Oui, Je vais le faire," I agreed that I would do it.
"So, you know what today is?" She asked, knowing full well that I did.
I swallowed thickly. "Oui," I confirmed.
"Then you know what happens next. If I were you, I would say your goodbyes. It will be lights out within the hour," she muttered.
She leaned forth and began to scribble once more onto the parchment. She didn't look up once as she made a shooing gesture with her hand.
I left the room, closing the door behind me. A tsunami of emotions crashed over me, drowning me with self-doubt. Sadly, I made my way back to Petr's room to bid him goodbye.
He was sleeping soundly when I arrived. I stepped carefully over to his bed and leaned over to kiss him gently on the forehead. I stroked back his hair, removing it from off his face. I had to be strong. Petr was relying on me to save him.
"Remember our pact. I will come back for you, I promise," I whispered.
I slumped down on my bed in the dormitory, having no recollection of how I arrived there. My mind was clouded in a thick, white haze. I couldn't stop my body from shaking, and my eyes felt raw from weeping. Some of the younger children came to ask me what was wrong. Concern spread across their innocent faces because they loved me like a sister.
"Go to sleep, I'm fine," I told them, forcing a strained smile. "Bonne Nuit," I bade them good night.
The lamps were extinguished and we were engulfed in a blanket of darkness.
How could I be expected to sleep when I knew what was to come?
I lay in bed with my eyes wide open in the dark. My focus remained firmly towards the door, waiting for my fate to emerge.
An hour or maybe two had passed. My eyelids were getting heavy. Then just as my eyes were about to close, I heard the door creak open.
My eyes bulged wide with fear and my body shook violently beneath the thin cotton sheets. The palpitations of my erratic heartbeat could be felt in my ears and throat. I thought it would burst from my chest and kill me in an instant.
I froze with terror as a large shadowy figure emerged in the doorway, making its way over towards my bed. I was shaken roughly before the blankets were abruptly pulled off.
I could scarcely make out the features of the person standing before me. Its face was hidden beneath a hooded cloak. However, I was able to make out the shape of a finger being brought to its lips as if to silence me.
The hulking figure before me led me out of the room by my wrist. It was solely when we passed through the dimly lit corridors of the orphanage, did I get a good look at his face.
It wasn't a man, it was a monstrous creature. I hyperventilated and pulled in a frantic attempt to free myself from his grasp. It turned to me with a forceful snarl, and as I screamed, it gave out a terrifying growl.
It was at that moment that I fainted.