Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact.
Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.
This title was originally published by Dorchester and written as Nancy Cane. The digital edition has been revised and updated.
A PRISM Awards Finalist!
“Prepare yourself for exotic locales, evildoers galore, and two splendid romances! Ms. Cane’s done it again!”—Anne Cleary, The Paperback Forum
“Fascinating! Nancy Cane combines the elements of science fiction and fantasy into a marvelous love story. Her books capture the imagination with their originality.”—Kristina Wright, The Literary Times
“The spellbinding action gets more terrifying and enthralling as the uniquely different plot thickens. The conclusion is stunning!”—Sara Sweeney, Rendezvous
“Intense and fast, Keeper of the Rings has an absorbing and complex plot that expands over and over again. And like ripples in a pond the reverberations are felt throughout the book to the very explosive climax. ”—Laurel Gainer, Affaire de Coeur
“Fans will find this appealing romance interesting and satisfying reading.”—Melinda Helfer, Romantic Times
“A dark, dangerous hero and imaginative adventures make Keeper of the Rings an entertaining read.” Phoebe Conn, NY Times Bestselling Author
KEEPER OF THE RINGS by Nancy J. Cohen
“If we don’t start soon, I’m going to faint. Dear deity, what if I trip over this thing when we’re called to the dais?”
Leena adjusted her royal blue robe with trembling fingers. Unaccustomed to its length, she grimaced at the sight of her satin slippers peeking out beneath the hem. She couldn’t believe she’d earned the privilege of wearing the sacramental vestment.
Karole patted her shoulder. “You’ll do fine. You always appear so well poised.”
Leena met her friend’s gaze. “Today is different. My father is in the congregation, and I don’t want to embarrass him. And where’s my brother? It’s unlike Bendyk to be late.”
“He could be seated with your father in the Inner Sanctum. They’re not allowed back here.” Karole swept her arm in a broad gesture encompassing the Robing Salon. Their fellow initiates stood around fidgeting like lower school graduates.
“You’re right.” Leena placed the ceremonial headdress over her head of blond hair.
Soon she and her newfound friends would become official members of the aide corps that served the Synod, the ruling body of priests on Xan. They awaited a signal from Dikran, the Arch Nome, who would begin the annual Renewal service. At its completion, Leena would assume her honored role as a Caucus delegate.
Her pulse raced with excitement. Ever since she was a child, she’d wanted to learn more about the Apostles who had established the religion of Sabal on her world. Her father, a high-ranking Candor, had inspired her interest in archeology by his study of ancient religious texts.
Growing up beside a crumbling ruin had sparked her imagination as she thought about life in days of old. Where had the Apostles originated? They’d established the magnificent reign of Lothar, their god, and then vanished. Why did they leave, and where had they gone?
Craving knowledge of her forebears, Leena realized the Synod held the key to wisdom. The ecclesiastical leaders were privy to secrets known to no one else. Joining the Caucus was the swiftest route to enlightenment.
A solemn bearded figure marched into the room. Planting himself firmly in the center, he peered around at the young initiates, waiting until everyone fell silent.
“It is time,” Zeroun intoned.
“Holy waters.” Leena’s knees quaked. “I can’t believe we’ve made it this far. May Lothar guide us.”
“You’re supposed to be near the front.” Karole prodded her. “Get in line.”
Leena wiped her sweaty palms against her flowing robe. Not even her graduation from archeological college had made her this nervous. Was it because Malcolm was in the congregation?
Her wealthy neighbor had been after her hand in marriage for several years now. Lately Leena had been inclined to accept, mainly for the security he could offer. She felt mildly affectionate toward him, but something made her hesitate.
Lining up behind the others, she tilted her chin in the air and marched forward with Zeroun in the lead. Leena had been in the cathedral-like Inner Sanctum many times during the past six weeks of training, but it hadn’t prepared her for the sea of faces that greeted them in the cavernous hall.
She took a seat along with the nineteen other initiates in the front row that had been reserved for them. The members of the Synod filed in, claiming their spaces on the dais.
Arch Nome Dikran sat on a throne-like chair, wearing his gold robe with the dignity that befit his eighty years. A towering headdress covered his head, and it was much more resplendent than the simple ones Leena and her friends wore.
She may not care for formal dress, but because her father held a high position, she was accustomed to elaborate affairs.
As she settled the robe about her legs, she wished for the comfort of the breeches and short-sleeved shirts she wore on her archeological digs. There was no pretense when you scoured a site for ancient treasures.
Malcolm didn’t approve of her career. He would expect any wife of his to stay at home and manage his household. Leena had plenty of experience in managing her father’s property, having done so ever since her mother’s death five years ago. That tragic accident had given her brother his true calling.
Good Lord, where was Bendyk? She craned her neck, searching for her brother’s familiar face, but she didn’t spot his blond head anywhere in the crowd. Returning her attention forward, she mentally checked off the dignitaries on the dais.
Sirvat, the most prominent woman on the Synod, looked stiffly proper in her white robe tied with the gold sash of office. Magar sat beside her, his eyes twinkling beneath a crop of white hair. Karayan, a family friend, caught Leena’s eye and smiled. Flushing, she looked down at her blue robe, eagerly anticipating the moment when she would be given the gold cord signifying her as an ordained servant of Lothar.
She shifted impatiently, watching Dikran rise and approach the podium. His shuffling gait proclaimed his age, but his dark eyes were sharp as they pierced the crowd like orbs of glowing embers. The service began with a hymn praising Lothar for his beneficence.
“We come here today before the face of our deity, the miraculous Lothar,” Dikran spoke into a microphone. “Together in worship, we sanctify our existence and praise Lothar, ruler of Xan. Who is like unto you, O Holy One, majestic and awesome in splendor? Who can compare to your generosity? Let the name Lothar be hallowed unto the world for all time. Let his name be glorified and exalted although he is beyond praise, because he is so mighty and powerful.”
The congregation raised their voices in a hymn, and Leena’s song joined them. The familiar melody brought her the same calm serenity as it had throughout her life at similar services. Renewal was a time to recall one’s past deeds, one’s joys and triumphs, one’s tragedies and sorrows, and to look ahead to the new year with reborn hope.
“May this new year bring us peace, joy, and exaltation.” Dikran raised his arms toward the vaulted ceiling. “May you bless us, O Lothar, with plentiful rains so our crops may grow bountiful and our fields be fertile. May our rivers flow and our lakes remain unblemished.
“We count on you, O Holy One, to maintain our land and to provide us with your blessing that keeps us from ill health. May our redemptive labors make us happy and our struggle for purity not fail. Let us toil at our work to the best of our ability. Blessed is the vision of holiness that exalts us from on high.”
Leena joined in a series of responsive readings. Her heart opened to Lothar and his generosity to her people. Truly they were blessed to have such a wonderful god looking out for them. He provided them with fertile soil with which to grow adequate foodstuffs. Xan was a rich, bountiful world. The lakes and rivers teemed with fish. The land blossomed with fruit, and the air was pure and clear. Truly, what more could anyone want?
Zeroun got up and exchanged places with Dikran. Minister of Religion, Zeroun’s presence was powerful, the hunch of his shoulders indicative of his forcefulness.
“Praised be Lothar who unifies all creation.” His eyes pierced the congregation as though he would read their souls. “May the Holy One fill our minds with knowledge and our hearts with wisdom, and praise those who labor to bring harmony to our world. The new year should be a fruitful one for us. Be gracious, O Lothar, and treat us generously. Be our teacher and guide.” He raised his hands toward heaven.
As the choir began to sing, melodious music filled the clerestory. Leena’s heart soared with faith and love for Lothar. Please help me clear my father’s name, she prayed. I know the answers are here in your Holy Temple. I vow that I will find them before the next Renewal. The communion of those around her filled her with comfort and peace as she followed the service.
“Let us bend in humility before Lothar.” Zeroun bowed low, his headdress dipping. “Let us give praise unto the one who established our land.”
“May the Holy One be gracious and bring us peace,” the congregation intoned in unison.
“As the new year begins, so is hope reborn in us,” said Zeroun. “Lothar has been resting after the toil of the harvest, but now is the time for Renewal. We must blow the sacred horn to awaken our god from his rest so the life cycle may begin anew. Behold the vessel for summoning Lothar.”
Karayan, Minister of Justice, and Eznik, Minister of Labor, rose and approached a set of immense carved wooden doors at the rear of the Grand Altar. Uttering incantations, they reached out to draw the doors apart in front of the awed congregation.
Leena held her breath. The sound of the horn was more than a symbol for ushering in the new year. It summoned Lothar, and when he awoke, he reset the climatic cycles of Xan for another year. Without his beneficence, her world would revert to the wild, untamed fury of the past. No one ever wanted that to happen. It would mean the end to civilization as they knew it. Renewal was the pinnacle of all the seasonal holidays.
“Show us the horn,” Dikran shouted as he faced the rear.
Karayan and Eznik drew the doors apart, and a collective gasp went up from the congregation.
Emptiness yawned from within the richly lit interior.
“Dear deity,” Leena whispered. Where was the sacred horn?
Dikran had a stunned look on his face, while the other members of the Synod wore horror-stricken expressions. Dikran cast a quick glance at Zeroun before indicating the doors should be shut.
Stepping forward to the podium, he raised his hand to signal the choir. A trumpet always played after the horn to reflect the holy voice. Now the trumpet player began a haunting melody that reverberated throughout Leena’s soul. When he finished, the congregation remained mute.
Dikran, his expression stony, spoke into the microphone. “Our opening of the holy chamber this year was symbolic. The sacred horn, after so many years of continuous use, has required a cleansing in sacramental water. We have blown the trumpet in its stead. It is Lothar’s will that this be done. Hear us, Holy One, and awaken from your rest.”
He raised his hands toward the congregation. “Bless our people and grant them freedom from sickness and sorrow. Let us love our neighbor as ourselves, walk humbly with our god, and convert our thoughts into faith and our words into good deeds. And so we say, Mahala.”
He beamed pontifically. “And now, it gives me great pleasure to call upon our initiates. These young people are dedicating their lives to serving the Synod. By their faith, they serve Lothar and thus you, the people. Treat them with the respect due their station. You may step upon the dais.” He gestured to the trainees with an imperious wave.
Holy waters, it’s time. Leena trembled as she made her way to the elevated platform. On the dais, she faced the congregation in line with her fellow initiates. One by one, Zeroun called them by name. He gave each candidate a lit candle and a gold sash signifying their station. Holding their candles, they repeated the words they had rehearsed.
“We pledge ourselves to serve the members of the Synod in good faith, with loyalty, dedication and compassion, and in so doing we pledge ourselves to you, O blessed Lothar. Praised be the power that brings us peace and prosperity. Praise Lothar, who sanctifies us all. Mahala.”
They blew out their candles to denote the end of the Renewal ceremony. The congregation remained in place while Dikran, the Synod members, and the new Caucus filed from the sanctuary to head for the reception hall.
A huge feast had been prepared, for Renewal was a happy, joyous occasion. Lothar was awakening. He would provide for them for another whole year, a year free from ill health, a year blessed with bountiful fruit and produce of the land.
Leena’s heart soared with joy as she followed her robed companions through the nave toward an archway at the rear.
Someone planted a hand on her shoulder in the reception hall. He whirled her around and planted a firm kiss on her lips.
“I’m proud of you.” Malcolm flashed her a grin that showed his white, even teeth.
Leena scanned his handsome features. His brown eyes reflected warmth and something more when he looked at her.
“Thank you,” she murmured, pleased by his sincerity. “Have you seen Father?”
“He’s over by the refreshment table. Can I get you a drink?”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
She glanced around for Karole, wanting to introduce her friend to Malcolm, but couldn’t locate her in the crowd. People stood about in clusters, drinks in hand, chatting and laughing. Friends and relatives had come from miles away for this special occasion.
Most people attended religious services in their hometowns or at the regional worship centers, but guests of the elite were invited to participate in services at the Holy Temple, and such invitations were highly coveted.
Leena wondered where Dikran had gone. She wanted to put in a good word with the Arch Nome for her father. But Dikran was nowhere in sight, and neither were the top members of the Synod. Where had they gone?
Dikran should be here to give his blessing to the bread so they could eat. But it was Jirair, Minister of Agriculture, who offered the prayer. A moment of doubt overwhelmed her as she recalled the stunned looks on Dikran’s and the others’ faces when they noticed the horn’s absence.
Had it really been intentional that the horn not be here for Renewal, or was this a surprise to the Synod that Dikran had hastily covered up? They were certainly experts at cover-ups, as she well knew.
Malcolm interrupted her thoughts by returning with a cup of fruit punch.
“Thanks.” She gulped the drink down, her throat dry.
“What’s the matter? You look worried.”
She lowered her voice. “The sacred horn… do you really think it’s being cleaned? This seems an odd time to be doing a chore like that. We need the horn blown for Lothar to reset the cycles.”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “Are you calling Dikran a liar?”
Leena’s heart skipped, because it was Dikran’s veracity she questioned. Fortunately, she was saved from a response by her father’s arrival.
“Congratulations, my dear.” Cranby embraced Leena in a huge bear hug. He was a large man, and his crimson robe of office made him even more imposing.
“Thank you, Father.” Sliding back, she gazed at him with loving affection.
Gray sprinkled his blond hair, receding from a high forehead. Years of grief over the loss of his wife had dulled a set of blue eyes similar to her own. Clearly a pressing matter weighed heavily on his mind as he regarded her with an anxious expression.
“Have you heard from your brother?”
“He’s not here? I tried to contact him earlier, but communications to Amat were out. I can’t imagine what might have happened. He should have arrived by now.” Her stomach churned. It was unlike Bendyk to be so late.
Malcolm raised his hand. “I’ll go make inquiries. Amat is located at Seacrest Bay?” At Leena’s nod, he hastened away.
“He’s a fine young man.” Cranby eyed her carefully.
Leena lowered her lashes. “I’m still not sure about him, Father.”
His look grew stern. “You’ve achieved a great deal for a woman of twenty-five years, daughter. Now it’s time to think about your future.”
“I’ve just been admitted into the Caucus. My immediate future is here.” Her heart sank, knowing where this conversation was leading, but she tried to head him off regardless.
“Do you hope to be promoted to Docent, as do many of your peers?” Cranby pursed his lips. “I hadn’t known you to be so religiously inclined.”
Leena guarded her expression. Her father didn’t know the true reason she’d joined the Caucus, and it was best he remain ignorant. Otherwise, he’d warn her against her course of action.
She didn’t mean to stir up trouble but meant to uncover the truth about her religion’s origins to quell the doubts in her heart. Leena wasn’t the only one questioning the faith. The Truthsayers protested rule by the Synod. They demanded reforms, claiming Lothar was a false god created by the priests. The spate of recent weather disasters gave solidity to their words and shook the credibility of their religion.
The Synod proclaimed Lothar was angry at the people and punished them for their doubts, but Lothar was normally a god of compassion and mercy. There had to be some other reason for the climate changes on Xan, something only the Synod knew. That was another item of information she hoped to discover.
Her father shook his finger at her. “Mark my words, not another Beltane will pass with Malcolm and you unpledged. I shall speak to his father myself. It is still within my authority to troth you a husband, miss, and so I shall.”
She lifted her chin. “I don’t want a husband right now. I have too much to do in my new role.”
“Nonsense, that’s just an excuse. You dilly-dally too long, and this indecisiveness is unbecoming in a lady. You’ll lose the young man if you don’t snare him now.”
“I’m not ready─”
“You’ll never be ready at your pace.” He glowered at her. “No more arguments. The matter is settled.”
Leena bit back a retort as the Minister of Justice bore down on them.
“Cranby, my old friend.” Karayan slapped a hand on Cranby’s shoulder, then vigorously shook both his hands as was the custom. “How good to see you again, and what a thrill to celebrate your lovely daughter’s success.” His pale grey eyes swung to Leena, expressing approval.
“I’m looking forward to serving the Synod.” She smiled warmly. Karayan had always supported her father, even during his censure.
Karayan gave a slight bow. “You honor your family by your service.” He tilted his head at Cranby. “I understand your son Bendyk is earning a name for himself as a missionary. We have word that requests are pouring in from the villages for his counsel. If he keeps going at this pace, I see him being appointed soon as a Docent. Where is the young man?” Karayan glanced around. “I thought he was supposed to join us today.”
“Bendyk never got in. I called Amat earlier but couldn’t get through.” Leena adjusted her headdress, which had begun to tilt. The heavy piece made her temples ache. When could she get away to change into more comfortable clothes? Probably not until this reception was over.
Karayan’s eyes widened. “Did you say Bendyk was in Amat? We’ve just received word that there’s been a terrible disaster at Seacrest Bay. A tsunami struck last night. There have been casualties, and a rescue effort is underway. I’m uncertain of the details.”
“Dear Lord.” Leena’s knees quivered. “Bendyk was supposed to leave last night. I hope he made it out.”
Karayan laid a hand on her arm. “The Synod has called an emergency meeting to deal with the tragedy. Come with me.”
She gave her father a brief kiss and hurried after Karayan. Muttering a quick prayer that her brother would be found safe and unharmed, she followed Karayan through the maze-like corridors of the Palisades complex.
Dorchester, Feb 1996, 978-0-5055-2077-7, $5.99
Dorchester, Sept 2000, 978-0-5055–2400-3, $5.99