The Pilgrimage to the Boards

One of the great joys in writing is when the story surprises you. Usually, this epiphany happens in the moment of writing, but sometimes it is only a thing you realize afterward. Regarding today’s topic, the moment of discovery happened during the final major revision of the story, establishing a new theme I hadn’t anticipated.

**********WARNING! This article includes significant spoilers. I strongly encourage that you only read this if you’ve finished “Tears from Iron.” This article gives away a major theme of the story and several hints about the core plot. Reading it before the novel will probably diminish the pleasure of discovery as you make your way through “Tears from Iron.”**********

For several years now, I’ve been keeping a journal. On December 20, 2015, I wrote after an evening of editing:

I am seeing a new theme emerging from my story… Belarrin ends up on the Boards and everyone visits with different outcomes: Eltirkar and Ushtyl, then Tazil, then Reigliff, then Ninanna… and finally the Empress.

Thanks to the spoiler message above, if you’re reading this I assume (and hope) that you have read Chapters 38-43, during which Belarrin was held prisoner and tortured on the Boards in the cells beneath Nahirazith.

In the original draft of “Tears from Iron”, there were only four visitors to Belarrin on the Boards. Ushtyl and Eltirkar conducted their brutish interrogations, of course, and ushered in Bridionis as a means to compel Belarrin to tell all he knew of the Scions. Later, Reigliff visited intent on killing Belarrin. This played out much as it did in the final version.

Yet from there, I realized several things. First, it was Empress Kayrstana who needed to see the futility of the interrogation, not Ushtyl. Therefore, I moved the death of Bridionis to be by her command which placed her in Belarrin’s presence. Next, it occurred to me that I needed to bring the Belarrin and Ninanna character arcs back together more concretely before the climax to fully interweave their parallel stories. After all, why would Ninanna being who she is allow Belarrin to suffer on the boards? She would free him unless there was great need not to. And for her to make that decision, she’d need to talk to him about it. To leave him to suffer in darkness was against her character. That change avalanched into the idea of bringing in Tazil, too. As I’ll discuss more fully in a future article, my perception of Tazil as a ‘reluctant repentant’ had developed over the course of the novel. Like Ninanna, I felt like he needed to have a final conversation with Belarrin, man to man. While less critical to the primary plot of the story, it played a major role in the mirroring his life took to Belarrin’s. Tazil and Hirnid are similar in that way. Through Tazil’s final dialogue, I was able to better resolve the broader slavery theme that spans “Tears from Iron.” Yet it was only when I inserted this section in December 2015 that I realized the greater scope of what I’d done.

Piece by piece, step by step, scene by scene, I’d unwittingly created a “Pilgrimage to the Boards.” One by one, each of the major characters in the Syraestari Empire shuffle through an audience with Belarrin. They each enter to meet the man in suffering and all but one are changed by the experience. With the exception of the intransigent Ushtyl, each one of these scenes was intentionally written from their points of view, not Belarrin, in order to personalize the impact of these encounters on who they were. When I wanted to focus on Belarrin’s suffering and his own arc, I was careful to separate those scenes to times when he was alone. While Belarrin is the protagonist of the story, “Tears from Iron” isn’t just about him. It is also about the subtle waves that his life casts off, impacting the lives of everyone around him.

First Ushtyl interrogated him to find the Scion camps and end that threat to the empire. Tazil visited next, torn by newfound doubts about a world he’d once viewed with certainty. Then Belarrin was visited by Reigliff intent on killing him only to find faith to dare another way. The Empress visited next for the same ends as Ushtyl, but ended up being revolted by such tortures. Yet she brought Bridionis with her and, in so doing, opened his eyes to truth even as she killed him. Ninanna followed Reigliff’s surreptitious path into the prison cell, not to rescue Belarrin but rather to plead that he remain bound for the good of his people and hers. The final visitor was Talikae and, in her own way, she was the most important. It was she who escorted Belarrin to his execution, not as a captor, but as a friend. And the subtle faith of that friendship changed everything.

Each of them brought their own fears and pain to a man in deeper pain. They came for pride, doubt, death, duty, truth, sacrifice, and friendship. For all but Ushtyl, who was blinded by his own ambitions, they were better for it.