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JAN/FEB The Silver Swan


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The Silver Swan

'Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.'

- Victor Hugo

I

IN THE DARK caves of the Yarralin Mountains, there was only silence. The water that had once carved its way through the shimmering rock had long since subsided, leaving a craggy labyrinth in its wake. The air was still and cold, the rock sharp and even colder. The only living things were the mosses and fungi that somehow managed to cling to life in the barren tunnels.

It was here that the children of Indulkana came to prove their worth. A rite of passage, as ancient as recorded history, it had survived through ages of stone, steam and electricity. Even now, as the Indulkana reached out to the stars, they came to these caves. A reminder of where they came from, while they set out on the road ahead.

Some argued that it was not the test it had once been. That modern conveniences made survival in the heart of the mountains much easier than it had been, than it should be. Neitee's personal beliefs fell into the second camp; that the rite was not so much a test of survival as it was a search for one's true self. In the dark, cold silence, the only song to be heard was her own. She just had to find the right place to hear it.

In that quest, she had long since lost track of time. It felt like forever since she had seen the smiling waves of her friends, an eternity since she felt the farewell embrace of proud and tearful parents. Her rations told her it was little more than two days – she had enough to last her for another four – but she hoped to be able to leave tomorrow. Bright futures often lay ahead of those whose journey lasted three days. It was a fortuitous number.

Her footsteps beat out a soft rhythm on the treacherous floor as she trudged along, her head thumping in time with her heart where she had slipped and cracked it on the cave wall several hours ago. The blood had clotted in the vanes of her cranial feathers, clumping them together in a solid mass that was going to be a nightmare to clean. She reminded herself that was an inconvenience, nothing more. A few bumps and bruises were a small price to pay for finding her place in her people's symphony.

If she ever did.

The thought of failing was almost too much to bear, but as time dragged on in the bleak silence of the caves, it was a thought that was more and more at the forefront of her mind. Some never emerged from underneath the mountains and even now, no one knew what happened to them. There were rumours, of course, of camps in the darkness where the songless eked out a wretched existence. Others said that they simply lay down and died, overwhelmed by the continuing silence.

Neitee had encountered neither camps nor skeletons on her quest so far, and she was glad for it.

Those that did return from the caves without their song were pitied and separated from the rest of the Indulkana. Herded away in communes to be cared for, treated with the patronising gentleness of those considered more able. Forever on the fringes of society, never to be truly a part of it.

It was a fate many considered worse than death.

She vowed, then and there, it would not be hers.

II

TULLOUN WAS THE greatest of all cities; a sparkling gem of soaring crystal spires and verdant life. It was the seat of government and a centre of learning. It was the city that had launched the first of the Indulkana's voyages into the stars, that celebrated the discoveries that came with such exploration.

More esoterically, it was a site of pilgrimage, the gateway to the Yarralin Mountains. It was from here that the sole road to the caves was laid into the earth, winding through grassy plains. It was in Tulloun that a child would first introduce their song to their people, becoming an adult, a part of their symphony.

For seven days now, a lone figure had sat on this path in silence, watching. Waiting. A slight young thing, the girl had not left her vigil, even when the summer rains had soaked her though to the skin. Every day, she had been brought food and fresh clothes by an older man, and this day was no different.

'Come away, Yeutta. Your sister will return, whether you stand watch or not.'

He crouched next to her, his face lined with age and care. She turned to him and her pale eyes were wide with barely masked fear. Tears had washed clean lines through the dust on her face, threatening to do so once again.

'She only had food for six days, Papa. What if she doesn't return? What if...'

He laid a hand on her shoulder, then pulled her into his arms.

'I know your fear,' he murmured, holding her close, 'we all feel it. But we must have faith. Neitee is strong and clever. She will find her song and return to us with it.'

'But–'

'Hush, child. Come home for the night. Your mother is already worried for your sister, do not add yourself to her troubles. If Neitee returns this eve, the Guardians will care for her.'

A sob escaped Yeutta's throat, followed moments later by a reluctant nod. He placed a paternal arm around her shoulders, and father and daughter rose from the ground, beginning the scenic walk back to their home.

As they travelled through the Azure Skyway, the air began to resonate with screams.

It was a journey they never completed.

III

NEITEE LAY AMONG the jagged rocks, sharp edges piercing her skin and carving silver lines into her flesh. She wept, for her rations had long since been exhausted and still her soul did not sing.

She was a Mute.

The realisation had crept up on her slowly, finally reaching a crescendo that could no longer be ignored. Her legs had given way as the last whispers of hope had fled from her heart, and she remained where she had fallen, drifting in and out between racking sobs.

Her choice, unappealing as it was, was simple. Give up, remain and waste away, to become one of those unfortunate souls who never returned from the caves. Or steel herself to the future, get up and seek an exit from the dark silence, to live out her life in a commune.

Was shame truly a more terrible fate than death?

She did not know. All she did know was that now, more than ever, she desperately wanted to see her family again. Passing into eternity without ever looking on their faces again was a thought she could not bear.

The last of her tears fell down her face and she struggled to her feet. Exhaustion and hunger dragged at her limbs and eyelids, but she pushed on. Time had long since lost all meaning, her only measure of its passage was counting the thump of tired feet against the rocks. She lost count of the number of times she lost count, settling instead on picturing her family and how good it would feel to be with them.

A breeze played across her skin, a forgotten breath of life whispering through the rocks. Her time in the caves was almost over, and with that thought came a strange sense of freedom. If it was her destiny to be a Mute, she would accept it with grace and dignity. It was not such a bad path to tread; in many ways, it was a life absolved of responsibility. And though they had no song, many Mutes became skilled in other media, bringing colour and texture to the Indulkana. They did, after all, experience the world differently.

Neitee thought on how she had always enjoyed the warm summer evenings, with a brush in hand and a canvas in front of her. That was not such a bad fate at all.

As her footsteps brought her closer to the surface, before the sunlight began to glitter across the rocks, she heard them. Heard their heartless symphony. A cold, jagged chorus that cut straight through to her core. Icy fingers wrapped around a quickening heart, fear washing away weariness and banishing all thought and reason from her mind.

She ran.

The daylight seared into sheltered eyes and she raised her hand as meagre protection. When she could stand to look into the sky, there, hanging next to the golden sun, were three great cubes of metal and emerald. They were source of the alien chorus that thundered through her mind, drowning out all trace of her own people's songs.

She ran.

The streets of Tulloun were empty. No trace of her people, alive or dead, were to be found. The crystal spires were silent, the gardens were still. And all she could hear were the glacier chords from the skies.

Her legs buckled and she fell to her knees in Jarrakan Park. Surrounded by swaying trees and the heady scent of flowers in bloom, she watched as great lances of sickly green light sliced out from the cubes, striking the ground and carving through the earth. She had no tears left to spill as she saw her city sectioned up like meat for the slaughter, felt the world underneath her shake its protest as pieces of its skin were dragged up into the sky, held by beams of translucent jade.

There, as the world broke and sundered around her, Neitee lifted her voice in a keening song of sorrow and loss. She had found her place in the symphony. Hers was the last song of the Indulkana, the last music her people would ever make.

And it was beautiful.

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