Authors: Roberta Rich
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Thrillers
Safiye had more to worry about than simply birthing this child. Her only son might not live to hear the call for morning prayers. If there ever was a time when the Empire required a male heir it was now.
In the opulent royal palace of Murat III, on the shores of Constantinople, midwife Hannah Levi is charged with ensuring the Sultan’s harem provides him with a male heir.
If she fails, the entire Ottoman Empire will collapse. But the slave girl who has been stolen away to be the Sultan’s latest concubine is not all she seems...
ROBERTA RICH divides her time between Vancouver and Colima, Mexico. She is a former family law lawyer and the author of
The Midwife of Venice
Visit Roberta at
The Midwife of Venice
The Midwife of Venice
‘A lavishly detailed historical novel’
‘Roberta Rich plunges into the stench, intrigue and skulduggery of 16th-century plague-ridden Venice... Rich revels in the details of light, smell, sound, and larger-than-life characters‘
‘[A] moving melodrama of steadfast love against all odds... Rich‘s fascinating historical details and her warm empathy for her protagonists will capture historical fiction fans’
‘A lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues and some very creative disguises’
The Globe and Mail
‘A suspenseful tale... The book is obviously well researched, and its descriptions of Venice and Malta are both fascinating and realistic’
‘Rich skillfully incorporates a wealth of historical detail into her riveting tale of a heroine who won’t give up on her marriage’
To Ken—my north, my south, my east, my west
ONE SPRING MORNING
as the sun dappled the rocks with golden light, drying the dew from the night before, making the world look as scrubbed and as fleecy as a cloud, Leah made a blunder that was to lead to her death. It was a small thing—a matter of no consequence. She failed to hear the terrified bleat of her favourite black lamb and the answering cry of its mother. A lamb in distress is always a sign of danger, but Leah was squatting on the hillside, singing an old lullaby in Judeo-Tat, the language of the mountain Jews.
As she sang, she stroked the milky blue quartz that dangled from a lanyard around her neck. The pendant,
, offered protection for both Jews and Muslims against the Evil Eye. Because she believed she was alone on the mountain, she sang with gusto.
There were wolves in the hills. Higher up, beyond the point where even scrubby pines grew, were the goat-hair tents of the Yürüks, so dark in the distance they looked like raptors, the tent poles like talons ready to swoop down on prey. The Yürüks were nomads; their ancestors had invaded the plains of Anatolia centuries earlier, thundering down the steppes of Mongolia on their heavy-rumped stallions, leaving in their wake destruction and death. Leah had never ventured high into the mountains to the tents of the Yürüks, nor did she want to. Her world was her mother, father, brothers, grandmother, and, of course, Eliezer, the handsome boy to whom she was betrothed. Kaş, her village, huddled at the base of the Circassian Mountains, was no more than a handful of crude houses clinging to the side of the scorched hill, a half-day’s hard ride from the Yürük tents.
Herding was her older brother’s job, but he was ill with fever, so the chore of driving the sheep to the summer pastures now fell to Leah. It was not a task for a girl. Look what had happened to her older sister, a girl so beautiful that their father used to joke that a path of wild roses sprang up behind her as she walked. Rivka must have shouted for help. But there had been only rocks and wind-bent trees to hear her. But Leah, with her
, a gift from her grandmother, felt she had nothing to fear.
Kagali, the family’s herding dog, had wandered off to rest in the shade of the pines, and was tonguing his yellow
fur as the flies buzzed around him. Two vultures, limp as shrouds, glided on a current of air. Leah’s flock had long ago cropped the meadows bare of the wild sage and garlic. Now just patches of grass remained.
Leah bent down, picked up a pebble, blew off the dirt, and tucked it inside her cheek. The stone would keep her from feeling parched. Her goat’s bladder hung empty at her side, long since drained of water. There was no well nearby, only in Kaş. A brook lined with flat rocks ran through Kaş. It was where the women washed clothes. Tonight when she returned, Leah would be greeted by the smell of her mother’s stew and the sound of her father teaching her brothers to read.
Leah paused her singing to take a breath and at last she heard the black lamb’s pleas. She hiked up her kaftan, tying it around her waist to free her legs. She took up her brother’s crook, which lay beside her. As she stood and listened, the lamb’s bleating grew weaker.
Leah raced up the ancient path, which had been beaten like a welt in the ground by centuries of footsteps. There had been no rain for three winters. The earth had split into fissures, each one an open mouth, greedy for water. The lamb’s bleating seemed to be coming from a crevice at the top of the hillside.
When her chest began to heave from the upward climb, she spit out the pebble, afraid she would choke. She thrust two fingers into her mouth and gave a long, piercing whistle. She waited for Kagali to dash into sight. He was as big as a ram and so savage he was kept chained at home when
small children were nearby. His collar, embedded with sharp iron spikes, was crusted with the blood of wolves foolhardy enough to attack the flock.
Leah reached the crevice and crouched at the edge, peering down and listening, the ewe beside her. She knew the lamb’s shrill, tremulous cry, so like that of a newborn infant. She had pulled this winter lamb by his tiny hooves out of his mother’s belly many days ago when the moon was still full. It was her favourite—a black lamb with one blue eye and one black. Squinting into the crevice, she saw that he was struggling to free a hind leg that was jammed between two rocks. The ewe stood helpless beside Leah, her front hooves working the stony ground, sending a shower of pebbles down onto her lamb’s withers.
Suddenly, the dry perimeter gave way, causing the ewe to lose her balance. She twisted as she fell into the gully, and landed with a thud on top of a boulder. Even from above, Leah could see thistles had torn a ragged slash on the poor ewe’s udder, scoring her from belly to teat. When Leah returned home that evening with the flock, her mother would pack the wound with flowers from yellow coltsfoot and dress it with mosses. She would heal it by reciting a passage from the Torah, blowing forty-one times over the gash.
Each year after spring thaw, Leah’s father daubed the ram’s chest with a mixture of fat and soot from the cooking pots. In this way, he could tell which of the ewes the ram had serviced. The ram’s sooty mark was still on this ewe’s back, a black smudge where he had mounted her.
Leah fell to all fours and peered down at the ewe and her lamb, heedless of the rocks cutting into her knees and palms. If she lost both ewe and lamb, her father would scold her. And rightly so. She should not have been singing songs. She should have been paying attention to the flock.
She inched her way down into the gully using her hands to brace herself along the sides, unleashing an avalanche of rocks. The heat in the crevice intensified the smell of the lamb, still milky from its mother’s teat. The dust and the buzz of insects in the narrow space made Leah dizzy. Her face was sweaty and coated with a dusting of grit. Eventually, she reached the bottom.
Stuck between the two boulders, the lamb was unable to move. It was only then that Leah noticed his foreleg, the bone protruding, white as an ivory backgammon tile. As she was reaching for the lamb, she heard the sound of cascading pebbles and looked up. She expected to see Kagali’s yellow eyes peering over the edge of the crevice. But she saw only the vultures circling high in the air.