Uriankhai Horsehead Fiddle
"You shall find my body beneath the steep cliff, where the larch grove grows. Take my skull, and hang it from the old larch tree. And then you shall make of me an instrument: my skull for the box, the tree for the neck, my tail for the strings and bow. Whenever you play it, I shall be with you, for At-Beyi is inseparable."
- The Legend of At-Beyi
Though they come in several types, the traditional horse-head fiddle is an unusual sight. The instrument's sounding board is made of a horse's skull, backed with stretched horse skin. The two strings, made from horse hair, are strung around the nasal cavity of the skull, travel up the wooden neck, and are tuned into pegs at the top of the neck. The top of the neck is often carved to resemble a horse's head, much like a knight piece of a chess set. Other, more common variations are usually made entirely from wood, with either a teardrop-shaped or trapezoidal sounding board, often wrapped in horse skin. The instrument is played with a bow and is not unlike a cello in sound and practice, though horse-head fiddle music is its own separate genre.
Long ago, the Uriankhai were still nomads and wandered the Vast Steppes, ruled by a foreign empire that did not bother to understand or respect the ways of the nomads. One of the emperor's vassals was a young and arrogant prince, who owned many swift and terrible horses. One day, one of his bony old mares gave birth to a colt and died afterward. The prince looked at the colt and sneered, "I will not waste a single grain on an orphaned colt! Take it away!" And his servants left it in a field to die.
Now in this princedom there was an old man who was a thrall of the prince. He was overtaxed and poor, possessing only two shaggy camels and his son, who had never had a horse and so had no name. The boy found the colt in the field and took it home, nursing it to health. It grew to be a tall and strong stallion, 17 hands high with gray fur and a white star on its head. The boy and the horse were called At-Beyi, and they won many races and contests, making the Uriankhai proud.
The prince, who made his wealth from the races, grew furious when he heard of the boy and horse who were winning so many contests. He was even angrier when he learned it was his horse that the boy had taken from the field, even though the prince had abandoned it. He sent his best riders after them to have the boy arrested and the horse taken. At-Beyi, though, was uncatchable; no net could hold them, nor arrow find its way to their flesh. But one night, the soldiers stole the horse in the night and forced it off a high cliff, where it fell and died. The boy awoke and, knowing that his companion was gone, wept bitterly. He searched for days, neither eating nor drinking nor resting, but could not find his beloved horse.
When he finally collapsed, exhausted, the horse appeared to the boy in a dream. It spoke to him: "You shall find my body beneath the steep cliff, where the larch grove grows. Take my skull, and hang it from the old larch tree. And then you shall make of me an instrument: my skull for the box, the tree for the neck, my tail for the strings and bow. Whenever you play it, I shall be with you, for At-Beyi is inseparable."
The boy did as the horse spirit told him, and for many days he played the fiddle beneath the larch tree. When he thought of his horse racing across the meadows, his heart was glad and the fiddle's strings laughed. When he thought of his loneliness and the death of his horse, his heart was sad and the fiddle's strings wept. Passerby stopped to hear the beautiful music, and soon At-Beyi was famous through all the Uriankhai people. He played for years, and one day, as many people were listening to the old man play, a thunderous sound shook the whole grove. Over the hill came a herd of fifty horses, each one black with a white star on its head.
What none had known was that the horse At-Beyi was sacred of the Great Horse Lord, one of his herd of celestial steeds. He had sent the colt to test the prince, whom he found as wicked and brought about his downfall. But he so loved At-Beyi, he allowed some of his heard to descend from the heavens and trod upon the earth, only to be ridden by the most compassionate of horsemen, the Uriankhai. Their progeny now are few, but pure-blooded and owned by the Uriankhai as beloved companions and prized horses.
Creating a Horsehead Fiddle
After the eventual death of At-Beyi, others attempted to emulate his instrument and style in varying degrees. Generally, there are three recognized forms of the horsehead fiddle: the matouquin, the morin khuur, and the igil.
As At-Beyi's music spread, a number of non-Uriankhai tried to copy both the instrument and style, but without the "savage" construction of the original horsehead fiddle. The result was the matouquin, the name a corruption of the Urian word "morin khuur," horse fiddle. The sound box is constructed of wood, either a trapezoidal box or teardrop shape; on rare occasion, an actual horse skull is used, but the technique for this construction is difficult and unusual. High quality matouquins often have a carved horsehead at the top of the neck, but it is more common to have a standard scroll. The sound of a well-made matouquin is hard to distinguish from that of a true horsehead fiddle, and they are commonly played by non-Uriankhai musicians. A good player will earn the admiration of others thanks to the instrument's natural attraction, but Uriankhai find such foreign imitations poor at best, insulting at worst.
The Uriankhai have a tradition fiddle music, and of horsemanship, so At-Beyi's music naturally spread among his people. A true morin khuur - "horse fiddle" in Urian - is created and maintained with the same affection and dedication as an Urinakhai's horse is treated. After a horse dies, a Uriankhai may seek out a shaman to perform the ceremony to prepare the horse's body to become a morin khuur. The body is placed in a grove of trees, preferably larch, and is allowed to decompose while the horseman mourns. After a period decomposition, the hide and skull are cleaned and placed on a larch tree. The shaman performs his magic while the horseman calls forth the spiritual double of his horse. After the ceremony, a limb of the tree is removed and the fiddle is assembled. Played by a skilled musician, the sound is flawless and can play the emotions of its hearers, adding to the charisma of the player's music. When a song beloved by the horse it was made from is played on the morin khuur, the Great Horse Lord will allow its spiritual double to take form and the horse will gallop to the fiddler. Once per day, for a length of time determined by the player's skill, the spiritual horse can accompany the fiddler as it did in life before taking to the heavens once again.
Any Uriankhai shaman can perform this ceremony, and in fact for anyone, even non-Uriankhai. There are, however, restrictions. The horse the instrument is constructed from must belong to the one seeking the instrument to be made; not just any horse will do. The horse must have been loved in life, for an ill-treated horse's spiritual double will not heed the call of its former master. In the same line, a horse can never be slaughtered to create a fiddle, or its vengeful spirit will haunt the player and the strings will screech like a banshee. The morin khuur will function for the fiddler or anyone he allows to play the fiddle, and it can be passed down from one owner to the next, but a stolen fiddle will not grant any benefits to its possessor.
After the arrival of the Great Horse Lord's celestial steeds, the Uriankhai herdsmen took possession of them and gave them names, adopting the horses as their own. The Horse Lord was pleased, as the Uriankhai are the greatest horsemen in the world, and he allowed the divine horses to live in corporeal form for their owner's lives. When an owner died, so the horse returned to the heavens to dwell with its master. Uriankhai shamans, knowing the divine lineage of the horses, created fiddles from their bodies and presented them to the dead horsemen's sons, as they were the only ones worthy of the instruments. These few legendary instruments are called At-Beyi igils, named after the original horse and rider that created them. When played, the strings evoke the empathetic bond of a horse and rider, enchanting any hearers. Both sentients and animals alike can be entranced by the sound of an At-Beyi igil, their emotions caught up with the spirit of the music. Like a morin khuur, the spirit of the instrument's horse can be called forth, but these are no ordinary horses: they are the steeds of the celestial herd, the Great Horse Lord's own. They are stronger and faster than any mortal horse, and legends say they are capable of riding over any terrain, and even between planes of existence.
It is unknown how many of the original fifty At-Beyi igils still exist today. Even of those that do exist, the restrictions of its use still apply: only the igil's owner can grant it to another, and it cannot simply be stolen or taken. The descendents of At-Beyi's contemporaries still live on in the Vast Steppe, and some may still possess their ancestors' instruments.
Dark Horse - A local lord's domain is being harassed by a trio of bandits who seem to be unstoppable. The brigands are described as foreigners riding black horses with a white patch on their heads. A hefty bounty has been placed on the band. If the party can track them down, they will discover the riders are young Uriankhai with At-Beyi igils. They could be slaughtered and their exotic (if useless) instruments could be taken. Or, if the party is willing to talk to them, they could discover that the bandits see themselves as freedom fighters, seizing back their ancestral land from its imperious occupiers. The party would be forced to choose sides and take action. On the off chance they side with the Uriankhai and battle the lord's militia, a grievously wounded musician might grant one of the player's his instrument, and so too its ancestral horse spirit.
Player's Curse - As a bardic guilds converge on the city for their decannual congress, rumors circulate about the mysterious deaths of several prominent fiddlers. After investigating, the party discovers that each of the dead musicians was challenged to a contest by an enigmatic man. By the challenge, the men would exchange instruments and try to outplay the other. The party might ascertain that the challenger is using a morin khuur, one stolen from a Uriankhai he murdered; playing the instrument stirs up the angry spirit of the horse. The challenger's intentions could vary, from a simple scheme to steal fine quality instruments to the planned assassination of the guild's best fiddlers.
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? Responses (10)
Any suggestions/edits before I submit?
You'd get a 5 from me, so no :)
Okay then, fully submitted.
Full disclosure, I heavily borrowed the idea for the fiddle from the Tuvan igil: http://www.alashensemble.com/instruments.htm
5/5 which is what it deserves.
Very well done and I like the inclusion of the picture.
I will agree that this is very much a 5
A highly atmospheric piece. HoHing it so that more eyes can see this well-written piece.
Can't believe I haven't voted on this one before. This is one of the very first pieces I ever read on the site, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons I chose to join -- I was struck by the piece's quality and atmosphere, and was inspired to write some of my own. High time for another HoH!