|Cover art by Kenny McKendry|
New York: Firebird/Penguin-Putnam, January 2002 (© 1999)
Fire Bringer is David Clement-Davies first novel. It tells the story of Rannoch, born with a oak-leaf blaze upon his forehead the night his Herla father was murdered. But this is no ordinary murder mystery, for Herla are red deer inhabiting Scotland's plains a thousand years before our time. Humans are present, but only as a looming threat, for Herla and all other wild creatures (collectively called Lera) avoid them as the source of all evil.
In this tale, Herla herds are organized in a quasi-military way. Outriders are the guard force, the strongest and swiftest bucks who patrol outside the herd and warn of wolves and other dangers. Rannoch's father Brechin is Captain of the Outriders. But on this terrible night most of the Outriders are killed by gangs of deer acting on the orders of Drail, the Lord of the Herd. But Drail, well past his prime, would in the natural course of things be supplanted by a younger and stronger stag such as Brechin. He survives because he has reorganized society, surrounding himself with minions called Draila who act as his enforcers. But Drail is really the pawn of Sgorr, an antlerless buck who came from the north. While biding his time as Drail's underling, Sgorr hungers to bring all deer — not just Herla — under his dominion.
Rannoch, too, nearly meets the same fate as his father. For there is a prophecy among the Herla that one born with the white oak-leaf mark will set his people free. And Sgorr fears that bringer of freedom, for free Herla are no part of his plans. But Blindweed, the old storyteller of the herd, with Bracken's consent, exchanges her stillborn fawn with Rannoch, so that when Drail's minions come looking, they find Eloin, Brechin's hind, standing with the motionless fawn. Blindweed has smeared mud over Rannoch's telltale mark and sent him away with Bracken and Bhreac, a hind of age and wisdom.
When the Lore is bruised and broken,
Shattered like a blasted tree,
Then shall Herne be justly woken,
Born to set the Herla free.
On his brow a leaf of oaken,
Changeling child shall be his fate.
Understanding words strange spoken,
Chased by anger, fear, and hate.
He shall flee o'er hill and heather,
And shall go where no deer can,
Knowing secrets dark to Lera,
Till his need shall summon man.
Air and water, earth and fire,
All shall ease his bitter pain,
Till the elements conspire,
To restore the Island Chain.
From the High Land grass shall flower,
As he quests through wind and snow,
Then he breaks an ancient power
And returns to face his woe.
When the lord of lies upbraids him,
Then his wrath shall cloak the sun,
And the Herla's foe shall aid him
To confront the evil one.
Sacrifice shall be his meaning,
He the darkest secrets learn,
Truths of beast and man revealing,
Touching on the heart of Herne.
Fawn of moonlight ever after,
So shall all the Herla sing.
For his days shall herald laughter,
Born a healer and a king.
"You are coming with us, surely?" said Bracken genuinely, although the thought of losing Rannoch pained her deeply.
Eloin was silent for a while. When she spoke she was shaking.
"No. I am staying here."
"But, Eloin," whispered Bracken.
"I've made up my mind. If Drail really plans to harm the yearlings I may have some influence yet to stay his will. Besides, if he finds I've gone with you he'll never stop hunting you."
– Page 88
The little group then begins a winter odyssey north into unknown country, without the protection of stags. They endure privation and harrowing danger, at one point crossing a human-built rope bridge just ahead of pursuing Draila. Rannoch begins to exhibit strange powers; he can talk to other Lera, such as a crow who tells him how to find that bridge. Eventually he becomes separated from the group and must make his way alone. His powers aid him greatly. He now can heal animals as well as talk to them. He heals a female otter, and her mate tells him how to find the sea. There, says the male otter, he will find one who will help him understand the prophecy and his part in it.
Rannoch's quest as well involves finding Herne's Herd, which legend says inhabits the High Lands far to the north, beyond the Great Mountain. Herne is the Herla deity. And he has been told that Sgorr has a dark secret, which can be discovered on an island to the west. So he perseveres, learning and growing. He finds Herne's Herd, and they turn out not to be the allies he hoped for. Here he is reunited with the survivors of his group. After defeating Herne's Herd, they head south for the ultimate military confrontation with Sgorr, who by then commands a force of thousands. Rannoch leads a redoutable company, to be sure; but they number between two and three hundred. Clearly, brute force is not going to carry the day for them.
This is an engrossing tale. Despite its length, it carries the reader along swiftly and never over-stresses that "willing suspension of disbelief" so necessary to the enjoyment of tales like this. To paraphrase the teaser for the first Superman movie, "You will believe a deer can talk." Typos are few in this edition; of the three I remember noting, only one sticks in memory. "...his mother had picked up a scent at the bottom of the meadow. It was an old spore and faint, but Bracken had made sure that Rannoch remembered it." (Page 63) Clearly, the word should be "spoor", and this is almost certainly an editor's goof, because the author took pains to learn the relevant terminology, from the names for antler points to the types of forage the group encounters in their travels.
Fire Bringer is a strong first novel, worthy of full marks. David Clement-Davies has written several more. In addition to Fire Bringer, they include: