As the smouldering dusk fell, the Citadel of Xajorkith towering above them on the opposite bank seemed lit by a great fire in the west. Luxor the Moonprince gazed up at the Great Tower where his banner fluttered in the gentle breeze. Already the torches were being lit and the slender windows of the Tower were filled with a bright glow. He turned to his grandson.
"Well, Corleth, I would not yearn for adventure too much. Only fools seek danger eagerly."
    "Grandfather!" said the boy in exasperation, "I only want a little excitement. Father was younger than me when he set forth to destroy the Ice Crown."
    "Those were desperate times, Corleth. If that sort of excitement comes your way, I dare say it will be as unexpected as it is unwelcome. Come, let us return now before the feast starts without us," said Luxor.
    The pair set off again along the riverbank towards the Bridge of Whispers, a stone's throw upstream. A last caravan of carts and wagons and packhorses was making its way across the bridge and through Dawngate into the city. As they approached the bridge, Luxor noticed a ragged, barefoot boy sitting on the stone wall, cradling a lute. Beside him on the wall was a cap with a handful of copper coins in it. The boy looked dejected but as Luxor and Corleth drew closer, he looked towards them, gave a dazzling smile and began to play. After a few notes, he began to sing.
    Luxor paused to listen. The boy's voice was pure and golden and his song swelled out and filled the twilight air. Then the song was over and the air seemed empty. Luxor walked up to the boy, who slid off the wall onto his feet, cap in hand.
    "Can you spare a copper, sir?" said the minstrel boy.
    Luxor peered into the boy's cap, five small coins lay within.
    "That seems niggardly pay for such song, lad. This is more fitting. I'm sure."
    Saying so, the Moonprince dropped a gold piece into the cap. The boy gazed at it in astonishment. Then, coming to his senses, he picked it up and bit it. Finally convinced he looked up at Luxor, puzzled.
    "Begging your pardon, sir, but surely you've made some mistake. This is a gold piece!"
    "No mistake my lad, and there'll be another three if you care to play and sing at the Moonprince's feast tonight."
    "I'm hardly dressed for a feast sir," said the boy.
    "Some new clothes, a hot bath, a good meal and a bed for the night in the Great Tower, that's the rest of the bargain," said Luxor.
    "I don't mind new clothes sir, nor meal nor bed - that's plenty generous - but a bath?"
    Luxor laughed.
    "You never know, you might even enjoy it," said the Moonprince.
    The feast was in honour of Luxor's old friend, Lord Blood, who was visiting Xajorkith with his eldest son, Arin. The feast was in the open air, in the courtyard of the Great Tower. There were seven at the Moonprince's table. To Luxor's right was his son, Morkin, then Morkin's wife, Tarithel the Fey, then Tarithel's father, Araleth, Lord of Dreams. To Luxor's left was Lord Blood, then Arin and finally Morkin and Tarithel's son Corleth. At the other tables, a hundred guests or more were seated.
    Luxor and Lord Blood, both white-haired now with age, talked of old battles, of how they had stood side by side on the Plains of Blood to hold back Doomdark's foul hordes for just a few days and gain time for Midnight to be roused, of the desperate retreat to Shimeril with the enemy at their heels, of the long march north to Ushgarak and the great battle there that sealed Doomdark's fate.
    One by one, Prince Morkin, Tarithel and the Lord of Dreams were drawn into these reminiscences. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the Icemark and the war against Shareth the Heartstealer. For once, Lord Blood fell silent while the others told their tales. Tarithel still shuddered as she remembered her long struggle through the dark labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Icemark, searching for a way under the frozen wastes that ringed and guarded Kahangrorn, the Heartstealer's great fortress.
    Luxor and Araleth spoke of the many battles on their way north, of the rallying of dwarves and giants and fey to their banners as they heaped defeat on the Empress's armies and of the great battle when Shareth herself was slain.
    Morkin's memories were vaguer, but he spoke of his joy and confusion when Tarithel found him and broke Shareth's spell with a single kiss. And then they all spoke of the long journey back through the Frozen Empire to the Gate of Varenorn and Midnight.
    Arin and Corleth, having heard these tales a dozen times or more, or so it seemed to them, paid little heed and fell to boasting to each other of their moments of glory in the hunt, in sword practice and in courting. Meanwhile, in the centre of the courtyard, there were acrobats, jugglers, a dancing bear, fire-eaters, clowns, dancing girls. Finally, the minstrel boy came on, washed and scrubbed and wearing fine new clothes. Quietly, almost unnoticed, the boy began to play. Then, when he sang, his voice soared like a lark and a hush fell in the courtyard as people stopped talking and turned to listen.
    The minstrel's songs were old ballads that everyone knew well but his golden voice gave them each a new lustre. The boy's final song, however, was different. The melody was strange and haunting, the words spoke of cities and kings that no one had heard of.
    "...Then he plucked the glittering ring from the sand
    And took the Eye of the Moon in his hand.
    A ring for his wedding, a wife for his bed,
    Sherehar and Asim now could be wed."
    It was the end of the song. The gathered throng broke into rapturous applause, but Luxor looked startled. The boy blushed at such applause and then bowed before his audience. As everyone clapped and shouted, the Moonprince quietly slipped away from the feast.
    Luxor waited by the players' entrance for the boy to return. When he did so, Luxor simply beckoned him to follow, then silently led him a winding way through torchlit corridors and up spiralling stairs to a small, terrace garden high in the Great Tower. The garden was deserted and lit only by the moon and stars. Luxor sat down on a stone bench close to the tower wall and motioned the boy to sit beside him. From here, you could look out over the river to the Plains of Corelay beyond and Luxor would often come here to sit and watch in peace.
    "Your singing was wondrous yet I do not even know your name, boy," said the Moonprince.
    "I am Derim, my Lord," said the boy.
    "Tell me, Derim. You are not of these parts, are you?"
    "No sir. I have wandered through many lands."
    "I guessed as much. Midnight has been a land of peace and plenty now for many years and I do not let my people go ragged and hungry, even wandering minstrels. And your speech has strange accents. Where are you from then, Derim?" enquired the Moonprince.
    "I am of Coromand, my Lord," said the boy.
    "Coromand! That is a faraway land indeed - or so I hear."
    "Very far, my Lord, and none I would return to."
    "What befell you there?" asked the Moonprince.
    "I was apprenticed to a songmaster and we travelled from town to town. Each time my singing earned him enough for a flagon of wine, he got drunk and then beat me for no reason, so I ran away."
    Derim loosened his shirt and turned his bare back towards Luxor. Even in the moonlight, Luxor could still see the old scars on the boy's back. He winced.
    "So would I have," said Luxor, "Those are more like warrior's wounds. How long ago was that?"
    "More than a year. I knew a song that told of the wars of the Moonprince and the melting of the Frozen Wastes and the opening of the land of Midnight to the world again and how beautiful and abundant and peaceful Midnight was. So I headed north out of Coromand and into the Blood March where I knew he'd never pursue me," said Derim. "I've been travelling ever since, stopping in each place for few days and then moving on before they grew bored of my songs."
    "And that last song you sang, where did you learn that?" said Luxor.
    "In Coromand, sir. The ballad of Sherehar and Asim is famous there. Did you not like it, sir?" said the boy, puzzled.
    "The opposite, lad, quite the opposite. It was an astonishing song, especially the last verse."
    "The last verse? That always makes the ladies reach for their handkerchiefs but - begging your pardon - I think it's a bit soppy. It would be much better if it ended with Asim bloodied and victorious in battle, his enemies cowering at his feet."
    Luxor laughed.
    "If only you knew!" said the Moonprince.
    "Knew what sir?"
    "Can you keep a secret, Derim?"
    "Yes sir, my lips are sealed."
    "Centuries ago, before Midnight had been sullied by Doomdark and trapped in endless winter, Midnight had a great war-ring to keep it safe. That was the Moon Ring and on it was set the most precious of jewels, the Eye of the Moon." Luxor opened the neck of his tunic. There, against his chest was a golden ring, hanging by a slender golden chain.
    "This is the Moon Ring," he said. "I keep it with me all the time."
    "But the Eye of the Moon is gone!" said Derim, grasping the mystery. "And that last verse of Sherehar is a clue to where it might be."
    "Exactly. If your song be true, it seems the Eye of the Moon has been found again and set in another ring."
    "It's true sir. A ring called the Eye of the Moon still lies in the King's Tower in Coromand. No one but the King himself is allowed to touch it."
    "It would be better if none were allowed to touch it. When Asim took it from the sand, he held a thing more dangerous than any sword or lance. The Eye of the Moon lent dread power to the Moon Ring and doubtless will lend the same to any other ring in which it is set," said Luxor.
    "How was the jewel lost sir?" asked Derim.
    "By foolishness. Rarnor the Unlucky was Moonprince then. The Moon Ring has such power it should only be placed on a finger in times of war and great peril, but Rarnor was unlucky in love. One night, in frustration, he donned the Moon Ring to impress and enchant a pretty maiden. He did so with some success, but in the morning, when he woke, the maiden was gone and so was the Eye of the Moon, plucked from the ring on his finger as he slept. Neither maiden nor jewel were ever seen again."
    "Will you try to get it back, now you know that it's been found?"
    "I must," said Luxor, "I fear that the Eye of the Moon in the wrong hands could be turned against Midnight and put the land in the greatest of peril. And there is another reason too. The Eye gave the Moonprinces of old fleeting glimpses of things to come. I am growing old. Before I die, I would dearly love to know that this is a lasting peace that Midnight enjoys."
    "When will you leave, sir?" said the boy.
    "On the morrow! If a moment is not seized, it may slip from your grasp."
Luxor rose to his feet and went over to the battlement. He leant forward pointing.
    "Look, Derim," he said.
    The minstrel boy came to Luxor's side and peered down at the dark river. There, moored alongside a wooden jetty further upstream, was a beautiful, slender ship rocking gently as the current curled around it. In the moonlight, it seemed to the boy that it was made of silver.
    "There lies the Cormorant, swiftest of my fleet," said the Moonprince.
    "Tomorrow, bearing rich gifts for the King of Coromand, we'll set sail down the Imilvir towards the Last Mountains and the Blood March."
    "Will you take me with you then?" asked the boy eagerly.
    "Nay lad! You have done enough already and suffered many hardships to bring me this tale. Rest here, where there is laughter and joy. Besides, the minstrel to the Court of the Moonprince must stay here in Xajorkith and compose new ballads for my return."
    "Minstrel to the court?" said the boy, suddenly a treble once more.
    "If you will accept the post," said Luxor.
    "Gladly, my Lord!" said Derim.
    In the moonlight, Luxor did not notice the boy blush.

Chapter Five Contents Chapter Two