Char is a major POV in Heartland and I’m so excited to share him with you. I knew I wanted a young male character to stand opposite Kyndra, someone who had seen his share of shit and given it in turn. His upbringing leaves him with a deep-seated cynicism about the ‘fairness’ of the world. And though he abhors his role as a slaver, it’s the only life he’s known. The one person he’s close to is Ma, a mercenary who taught him to fight and survive in the desert. But Ma harbours several dangerous secrets – about her identity, about her abilities and about her and Char’s shared past.
I love how Phil approached this illustration, highlighting Char’s desert upbringing, his unusual eyes and the I’ll take none of your shit look that I imagine him to wear most of the time. Please check out the rest of Phil’s’ stunning art. He’s a local artist, who I’m very happy to support.
The Beaches, Acre
His first name wasn’t Char. That was what the slavers called him. Neither was his second name Lesko: that was Ma’s name. But Ma had raised him, so he had taken her name for his own. In a way, Ma was mother to the whole caravan. We slavers are all Leskos, he thought.
Technically, Ma was nobody’s mother. She was a mercenary, perhaps the finest fighter in the Beaches. No slave escaped on her watch, and when she was present at negotiations, buyers paid the agreed sums and proper courtesies were observed. The slim kali sticks sheathed at her hips were a fierce deterrent to any who thought they could cheat the slaver master, Genge.
Still, if Ma Lesko was anyone’s mother, she was his. She had found him as a baby, after all. And, for reasons known only to herself, instead of leaving him to die by the side of the road, she’d kept him and signed on as a guard with Genge’s caravan. It wasn’t a good life, but they had food and a tent over their heads. Ma had done her best. No matter that the slavers called him Char, saying his dark grey skin looked as if he’d been pulled out of a fire. No matter that they shunned and spat at him when his back was turned. No matter that it was only his relationship to Ma that protected him from a coward’s knife in the back. The slavers were yellow bastards at heart.
And that was why he was going to kill them.
Char eased the kali sticks into his palms. Ma had taught him that, when wielded right, they could break a neck in one strike. It was a quicker death than the slavers deserved and certainly too swift an end for their leader, Genge. But Char was no torturer. He’d settle for justice.
He moved through the camp, a shadow amongst shadows. The night came suddenly in the Beaches. If it caught you un- aware on the dunes, you’d never see sunrise. There were worse things out here than slavers. A voice moaned, loud in the quiet. Char jumped, silently cursing the slave. His fingers slipped on the sticks and he almost dropped them. Concentrate. He tightened his grip. One misstep and it would be his blood soaking the sand. He doubted even Ma could talk Genge down if the slave master discovered him out of bed with drawn weapons in the heart of the camp.
He tried to keep his breathing even, tried to find the calm centre Ma was always talking about. As usual, he couldn’t sense it. He always felt so full of rage. Char hissed through his teeth. Concentrate, you idiot. Too many thoughts. He was always thinking too many—
There was a sharp blow to his windpipe. Char choked and clapped a hand to his throat. His sticks tumbled to the sand as an arm encircled his neck and dragged him backwards. He hadn’t even time to reach for the knife in his boot. Struggling to breathe, Char kicked back, hoping to catch his attacker on the shin, but his foot met no resistance and the next moment, pain blazed across his knees. He crumpled. ‘Stupid,’ hissed a voice.
It took Char several seconds to recover his breath. ‘Ma?’
He was dragged through the chilly night sand, back towards the safety of his tent, back towards the life he’d sworn to escape. Anger lent him strength. He felt that she hadn’t used the full lock on his arms. Only one stick held them twisted behind his back. With a growl of effort, Char broke her hold and spun to a standing position.
Her full-armed slap sent him staggering back. He raised a hand to ward off another blow, forgetting too late that he’d dropped his kali sticks. Instead, Ma only looked at him. Her face was a chiselled shadow under the stars. He glanced at a dark smear on one of the elbow-length gloves she always wore. Blood. Char touched his stinging cheek and rubbed the wetness between finger and thumb. Ma’s expression did not waver. In one smooth motion, she sheathed her sticks, seized his arm and hauled him bodily through the flap of his tent.
Char said nothing as she sat him down. He let her clean the cut on his face, ignoring the tincture’s sting. Ma worked in silence. Only when she’d capped the bottle and cleaned her cloths did she reach for the two sticks tucked safely behind her belt. Char took his weapons back. His throat still hurt from Ma’s jab and he swallowed painfully. ‘When you have surprise on your side, always go for the throat,’ Ma said. ‘With the right speed and pressure, you can close an opponent’s windpipe for a few critical seconds.’
Char rubbed his throat and kept silent. For her, disarming him had been no harder than taking an infant’s toy. It rankled more than he wished to admit and he looked away. Ma seized his chin, forcing him to meet her gaze. ‘No,’ she said softly and he knew what she saw: his eyes burned, black pupils narrowed to slits like a cat’s. Char tried to breathe deeply, tried to force down the ever-present anger, but spiked with humiliation, it wouldn’t leave. ‘Boy,’ she said. She never called him Char. ‘Let it go.’
He shook her off. ‘Why should I?’ he snarled, as the untempered fury beat at his insides. Tonight it felt like vast, bound wings, straining to open. ‘Why did you stop me?’
Ma faced him calmly. ‘You know why.’
It was too much. Char felt walled in by years of unanswered questions, the same things asked over and over again. Where did Ma come from? Why did they live like this? What stopped them from leaving? Every way he turned, Ma was there with her inscrutable face and her refusal to answer. She was the only person he loved in this cursed world. He would never hurt her. But the rage boiled and writhed and lashed him, so that he almost cried out against the horror of what it could do if it ever got loose. ‘Ma,’ he breathed.
‘I know,’ she said in her husky voice, catching him in a rough hug. ‘I know you hate them. But we must stay. We stay because it’s safe.’
Char pulled away. ‘I wouldn’t call Genge safe.’
‘No.’ She shook her head, brown eyes opaque. ‘But he’s a different kind of dangerous.’
Ma wrapped muscled arms around her midriff, though the tent was well insulated against the cold desert night. She gazed at him a while before answering, as if searching for the right words. ‘Genge is a beast, but a beast we know how to handle. There are other beasts out there, ones I don’t understand, ones I am afraid of meeting.’
Char shook his head. ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.’ His anger had begun to fade, a profound weariness taking its place. ‘Can’t you give me a simple answer for once?’
Ma dropped her arms. ‘There are no simple answers, Boy.’ Her dark face was hard. ‘I’ve told you. I can’t fight the beasts I don’t know.’
‘Then I will fight them,’ Char said impulsively. He knew nothing of Ma’s past, of the time before she rescued him. But it was obvious: she was hiding from something . . . or someone. He grabbed her gloved hands. ‘You needn’t be afraid, Ma. I’ll kill whatever beasts you fear and then you and I will be free to go where we want.’
‘No,’ she said, and he recoiled from the fierceness in her voice. ‘It is not your place.’ But Char had seen all that he needed to. Ma was hiding. And underneath her calm façade, she was terrified.