I like myths. Norse myths were among the first “fantasy” I ever experienced as a child, followed quickly by Greek mythology. Origin stories and fables and cautionary tales all, myths have a power unlike any other form of literature. The only time I have ever been able to indulge in myth making, though, has been while writing for the adventure game (aka Role Playing Game) industry, where the work you do is not so much about writing stories as it is about building foundations upon which others can build their own stories. The following sort of fits into that vein. It’s a story in that it has a beginning, middle and end, but also serves more to build a world and imply something with which to interact.
How the Centaurs Came to Be
from the annals of Rovarik Balt, Imperial Historian Exult
A Word on Sources: The following history was distilled from a great many sources, not least of which the stories of the centaur people themselves. Their version — or “versions” I should say since no two tribes tell precisely the same tale — does not include the Empire, of course, as the nature of politics and war make it unseemly to tie oneself to one’s enemies so intimately. Also, given the race’s descent into barbarism, it is in fact possible that the links to their Imperial Origin were lost. Our own histories do not mention the centaur people at all, of course, at least not until only a few centuries ago with the disastrous “first” contact between us. With the end of the Low Campaign and the Start of the Duskward Expansion period, the entire eastern region was abandoned and fell into legend for centuries. It is no wonder that the then nascent centaur tribe did not figure in Imperial report. Rumors can be found in various travellers writings and the infamous explorer-merchant Argipol claims to have met them in his “Travels Beyond the Blue Mountains.” So little of that volume is based in truth, however, that the best one can say is that it is possible he heard an accurate report of the centaur people third hand and, as was his style, embellished it. Despite the questionable veracity of all of these sources, and many minor others, something like the true origins of the centaurs can be carefully reassembled like a shattered vase under the steady, skilled hand of a master historian. What follows is my most humble attempt.
In the thirty-third year of the fourth century after Luminov blessed the Sky Throne and established our beloved Empire, His Most Adored and Beloved Emperor Niko II ordered the Low Campaign to expand the Reach of Luminov into the river lands east of the Blue Mountains. To this end, over the course of some nineteen years, Imperial outposts were established in that wilderness and garrisoned with Knights of the Empire. As it was Nikos’ most wise desire to seed these new lands with the children of the Empire, the knights were called Unchaste and the maids and wives of the knights lived too at the outposts.One outpost well beyond the mountain wall was called Epo and it would be the last outpost before the demise of Niko II and the Ascension of Niko III that altered the course of the Empire and pushed it westward.
Epo was governed by Lord Kavil eth-Gard and housed only twenty-two thousand knights. With the wives, concubines, servants and daughters of the knights, the population of Epo was last recorded as eighty-seven thousand and three hundred twelve. The fertile river lands let Epo remain self sustaining except for iron from the Blue Mountains, and luxuries from across the Empire. In the five years of records that survive for Epo, only two hundred nine boys were returned to the Empire and replaced with squires. In addition, in the final year of record, Epo sent ten thousand bushels of wheat and three thousand twenty one local slaves to the capital as treasure. A notation was made by the Lord Collector of his surprise that Epo could become profitable in a mere four years. One wonders what could have been, had eth-Gard not failed so spectacularly.
The river lands were people by barbarians of no special merit. They were neither savage nor enlightened, warlike nor docile, dark nor light. They lived in mud huts and raised mean livestock and tended meager fields. What these lands did have in great abundance, however, were horses. The horses of the river lands were of the purest, strongest stock, for their Divine Mother, Eki, ran still among their herds. As great as an oliphant and as swift as a shooting star, Eki the Horse Goddess blessed her brood with such speed and endurance and courage as unseen in all the Empire. The people of those lands, being barbarians and hence taken to worshipping walking gods like Eki, would not tame any horse. Their stories, it was recorded by eth-Gard, did speak of tribal chiefs so brave and strong they could harness Eki herself and be rewarded for this deed with a great stallion for a steed.
Eth-Gard decided he would tame the Horse Goddess and gain this reward. He wrote he did so for the glory of the Empire, for no cavalry mounted atop the Steeds of Eki could be withstood, but I believe it was his own hubris that drove him to this act. Eth-Gard had nine wives and fourteen concubines and yet he wanted to conquer more.
Here, the story becomes muddled. In eth-Gard’s surviving writings, he spent nine days tracking then breaking Eki, finally so great in his efforts than Eki bent to knee to let him place the bridle upon her. In the ancient tales of the centaur skalds, Eki teased eth-Gard, running circles about him for ninety days, letting him neither sleep nor eat. It was only when he was going to expire for his love for her that she rewarded him by allowing him to ride her, unbridled, back to Epo. The storytellers of the barbarians of the river lands, who still live in their mud huts and raise their mean stock, have yet another version, where eth-Gard tricked Eki, offering her a Sidereal Apple with one hand but slipping The Iron Bridle (both objects from their body of myth) on her with the other. Some stories even cast theirs as a romance, with the prize not his choice of stallion, but consummation.
Whatever the truth, all sources agree that eth-Gard did indeed win his contest with Eki and was rewarded with a great stallion. Being a shrewd commander, eth-Gard chose not the stallion with the mightiest thews or fastest stride, but the one who held sway with the most mares and young stallions, for eth-Gard wanted a great cavalry for the glory of the Empire. His choice was a good one and he gained his wish, for within a few years he had built a herd where not only did every knight have a stallion of Eki, but so too did every lady have a mare of Eki.
At that time, among the many tribes of the river people only one remains known by name. They called themselves the Ghurst and they painted themselves white and raided the farms of the other folk. For a time, eth-Gard not only ignored the Ghurst but actively, though secretly, aided them in their trepidations until, as he desired, the other tribes of the river folk begged for Imperial protection. With his great cavalry of Steeds of Eki, eth-Gard came to their aid. But by then the Ghurst were a mighty horde and they number ten savages for every Imperial knight. War was upon the river lands and the fate of the Empire in that region rested upon Lord Kavil eth-Gard.
It is here where Imperial records end. According to reports buried deep in the archives, eth-Gard’s cavalry was destroyed and the Ghurst attacked Epo, murdering, raping and pillaging. No revenge was offered, for Nikos II died and his ambitious son’s eyes turned to the west to the Dusk Isles. In order to learn what became of eth-Gard and how his fate led to the creation of the centaur race, we must turn to the centaurs themselves. Though additional research has provided some validation for what follows, and my own expertise has abolished much hearsay and myth, uncertainty remains.
In the centaur version of the war, Kavil eth-Gard and his cavalry mounted upon the Steeds of Eki pushed back the Ghurst in every battle. These victories were hard won, so go the tales, and the horses were the greatest casualties. Eth-Gard held no regard for the mounts. In his mind they were simply tools. He ordered his men to ride them all day into a lather and then fight until dawn. The lame were slaughtered for meat to feed the eth-Gard’s knights and the wounded were executed rather than healed. Eki, say the centaurs, raged at the treatment of her children and appeared three times to eth-Gard. At each appearance, a knight died, his soul simply whisked away from his body which then withered and turned to ash on the wind, for every mount that had died that day. Eth-Gard ignored these warnings and pushed on, driving the horses to death in pursuit of the Ghurst.
Eki, say the centaur priests, anguished over her choice for the turning of the moon. With her divine might, she could have eradicated the knights and freed her brood, but perhaps that would only bring more knights. More importantly, they say, by then the tribes of the river people had realized the horses could be tamed and had begun to do so themselves, driving and beating the animals like lowly cows or dogs. Eki desired only that the men of the Empire value her children as their status warranted. So, she cast upon them the only curse she could imagine that would bind the men to their horses: she magically, physically, permanently hound eth-Gard and his knights to their stallions, making man and horse one, creating the centaur race.
Waking at the day and finding themselves now half man and half horse, the Imperial knight-centaurs wailed and gnashed their teeth. The Ghurst saw an opportunity and attacked, but the newly forged centaurs were greater than man and horse had been separately. Donning their breastplates and helms and wielding their lances and swords, they slaughtered the Ghurst to a man.
When the battle was done, eth-Gard lay mortally wounded among his company. The man-horses around him wept openly and Eki appeared. As she stood over eth-Gard, she saw the sorrow around her and said, “Even tied to this cruel fate, your men love you.”
Eth-Gard is said to have laughed at the goddess. “That is not why the men weep,” he said. “Another among them will rise to lead.”
“Then they must love your country very much,” Eki said. “For your men cannot return to that place as man-horses.”
“You are wrong again,” answered eth-Gard. “If my men chose, in these new forms they could crush the cavalries of the Empire and not just return home, but take it as their own.”
“What then?” asked Eki. “Why do they weep if not for love of their captain or love of their country?”
“They weep for love of their lines,” answered eth-Gard as he neared death. “In these forms, none shall ever father a son again. Our wives will run from us as the monsters we are, and even those that might not would be broken beneath us.”
“Such is the fate they chose in ignoring my warnings,” chided Eki. When eth-Gard laughed, the goddess asked, “What brings you mirth now, cursed one, upon your deathbed?”
“In your rage,” said eth-Gard, “you have lost count. Here, bound to mere men, are all your stallions, no more able to sire a foal than father a child. And your mares, they are all in the hands of our wives. As surely as you have cursed us, you have cursed your own brood.”
Furious, Eki rose above eth-Gard and threatened to come down and dash his skull with her hooves. But she knew he was right. In her wrath she had sealed her ken’s own doom and in so, her own, for what is a goddess without a people? So, letting eth-Gard expire of his wounds, Eki raced from the field of battle to Epo. Thereupon, she used her divine might to bind every knight’s wife to the mare he had gifted her. Thus born were the centaur women.
For a time, the centaur people tried to emulate Imperial society but their spirits were as bound with horses and their bodies. With the Empire thinking Epo razed by barbarians and turned westward and the centaur slaves to their animal whims, the inevitable occurred in short order. In time, the centaur tribe split and split again, and spread to the corners of the world. All remain in service to Eki, however, and bitter enemies to the Empire.