Like unicorns, fairies, elves, and so on, centaurs are a somewhat “standard” element of fantasy. And like these, and many others (see the Culture page of this blog for an incomplete list), I include them in the Shine Cycle—but turn the trope on its head.
Centaurs, “horse-men”, are strong and fiercely independent people. They prize liberty above all else, and honor and strength above everything else. Their society is nomadic and tribal—though unlike many similar societies, this is by choice, rather than by ignorance or misunderstanding of the customs and assumptions of “the settled peoples.”
Physically, a centaur appears to be a horse from about the shoulders down, and a human being from about the waist up. There is nearly as much variance in size and appearance among centaurs as there is among horses and human beings (though the equine and human parts are proportional to each other in size, and color and markings change between them somewhat gradually). As I said, strength is prized, so the largest and strongest individuals are seen as attractive.
Centaurs are, physiologically speaking, interesting. Sir Emeth has a fascinating take on the problem, which I find quite compelling, but for the Shine Cycle I’m going a different route on most of the issues.
First of all, digestion. A centaur has several stomachs, and in fact two parallel tracks through most of his digestive tract, one for “horse food” and one for “people food”—or, as he would think of it, one for endurance and one for sprinting. A subconscious instinct that’s learned early on causes each meal to “go down the right hatch.” (Because the apparatus for tasting food is shared between the two “natures,” but some spices could be somewhat harmful to the equine stomachs, most centaurs tend to prefer their food to be somewhat bland.)
For breathing, a centaur has at least two sets of lungs, each of which can act at its own rate to some extent. There’s only one full-fledged heart, but it’s much larger than an equine or human heart, and even so its force is supplemented by additional pumps in the “vascular extremities.”
All of this complexity comes at something of a price—a centaur’s “internal armor,” muscles protecting the organs, is somewhat weaker and thinner than one might expect. Because of this, centaurs prefer to wear as heavy a suit of armor (including barding on their “horse parts”) as they can stand—one school of thought even favors wearing particularly heavy armor in normal day-to-day life as strength training, and then a using somewhat lighter suit in any actual battles.
Like the medieval knights they resemble, centaurs prefer two kinds of weapons: long pole-arms—often lances (as the easiest to produce)—to multiply the effect of a charge, and heavy impact weapons like broadswords or maces for close-quarters combat. Some groups also favor longbows, as the plains that are their most common habitat can allow archers to begin when the enemy is a long way off, and a few others have managed to convince the dwarves to part with their fearsome (repeating) crossbows in trade.
I mentioned that the plains are their most common habitat. But it’s not uncommon to find an occasional herd of centaurs in nearly any climate, with a style of warfare adapted to it. Forest centaurs, for example, are more likely to stand fast than use the charge their plains cousins prefer, but wear somewhat lighter armor to give them agility. Those in colder climes adapt heavy, many-layered clothing into armor as much for warmth as for protection, and many have hooves (and other traits) more like a caribou or musk-ox than a horse. A herd in a swamp would favor thick but light-weight armor, which is sealed water-tight to help give them an advantage in water. And mountain centaurs are the only herds to routinely use large weapons (what we tend to think of as “siege weapons”).
Any questions or comments?