The Changeling
First edition cover




Short story



Historical era

Iron Age


Victor Ambrus

The Changeling is a 1974 short story written for Hamish Hamilton's Antelope Books list, aimed at readers 6 to 9 years old, with illustrations by Victor Ambrus.

A boy driven away from his adopted tribe returns to save his adoptive father's life.


A seventh child has been born into the house of Conan the clan chieftain, which the Old One warns them will inevitably attract the Little Dark People. In spring, his mother Murna goes to the stream to wash and, momentarily distracted by an uncanny bird, realises that her son has been switched for a baby of the Dark People. Her first impulse is to leave it to die, but the child begins to cry and she picks it up. Back at the house, she insists that she will raise him, as abandoning this child will not restore her own. The Old One darkly predicts that disaster will befall the Epidii for raising one of their enemies.

Fourteen years later, the dark days have finally arrived: the harvest was poor, the winter plaguy, the seal-hunting disastrous. The Old One once again urges the clan to cast the boy Tethra out, and Tethra, seeing that opinion is swinging against his father Conan, runs away of his own accord. He fetches up at the Standing Stones built by the Dark People, where one of their hunting-parties finds him in the night. Recognising him for one of their own by his looks and by the stone necklace he was found with as a baby, they take him to their headwoman, Ia. She is his mother. She tells him that she was chosen to make him the Seven-Year Sacrifice, and had to leave him to Murna in order to take Murna's child instead.

Tethra lives among the Dark People, occasionally returning to observe his father's people in the Glen of the Chariot-Crossing. In autumn, the Epidii gather for a day-long hunt, at the end of which Conan is gored by a huge stag. Ia reminds Tethra that Conan is no longer his concern. At the end of nine days, Tethra asks Ia for a healing magic for the dying Conan, and she acknowledges his unhappy declaration that he is not truly one of the Dark People. She makes the medicine, but warns Tethra that he cannot return and that the Epidii will kill him if it fails. He goes nevertheless.

The Old One rails against allowing Tethra to perform a magic of the Dark People, but the other warriors agree that it cannot hurt to try, as Conan will die otherwise. Tethra administers Ia's potion and sweats Conan's fever overnight. In the morning the fever has broken. Tethra is initiated into manhood with the other boys of his year and Conan slowly recovers. Conan asks Tethra whether it was hard to choose to come back to the Epidii. Tethra says that it was no choice at all, but it was hard anyway:

"Take a wolf-cub young enough from its own kind, and it will run with the dog-pack––even to the hunting of wolf, when it is grown. . . But maybe it hurts the wolf-cub, too."


The Changeling takes place at an unspecified point in the British Iron Age:

"Long before the Epidii came following their white horse out of the sunrise, long before any of the Golden People, the little Dark Folk had been lords of the land. They were the People of the Hills, the hunters and the growers of corn. They were the builders of the great circle of standing stones on the high moors inland. But their slender weapons tipped with the dark blue flint had been no match for hard cutting bronze swords, and spears tipped with the magic grey fire-metal called Iron."
If Sutcliff's historical fiction is considered as a series or continuity (an interpretation which is consistent with the books but rarely made explicit in them), The Changeling takes place sometime after 100 BCE, the date given in Sun Horse, Moon Horse for the arrival of the Epidii in Scotland. Sutcliff significantly revised her ideas of the Epidii/Iceni after reading T.C. Lethbridge's The Witches, as seen in Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977) and Song for a Dark Queen (1978). She had presumably not yet read Lethbridge when she wrote The Changeling, as the Epidii more closely resemble their first appearance in The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) and the description of "magic grey fire-metal" is closer to the treatment of iron in Warrior Scarlet at 900 BCE than in the firmly Iron Age tribe in Sun Horse, Moon Horse in 100 CE.

When the story begins, the Epidii have been established in the Glen of the Chariot-Crossing long enough for the chieftain's stockade to have "long since taken root and become a blackthorn hedge."

  • Winter: Conan and Murna's son is born
  • Spring, three months later: the baby is exchanged for Tethra. Murna adopts him.
  • Murna dies in childbirth
  • 14 years later: A bad harvest; a sick winter; Ishtoreth dies at sealing. Tethra is blamed. Tethra runs away. He is 1 year short of initiation.
  • Next morning: Found by hunters of the Dark People.
  • Summer: Tethra lives among the Dark People
  • Early autumn: the clan hunts, Conan is injured.
  • Nine days later: Tethra asks Ia for medicine
  • The next day: Ia makes it
  • The next day: Tethra returns to Conan's settlement. It is 7 months since he left. That night: Tethra performs the healing magic.
  • A month later, late autumn: Conan is recovering. Tethra has been initiated as a New Spear.


  • The Ancient Ones, gods/spirits of the Dark People
  • The Barley Mother, goddess of the Dark People
  • Conan the Red, clan chieftain of the Epidii
  • Conan's brothers, their wives, their children
  • Conan and Murna's son, born in winter
  • The Dark People, the People of the Hills
  • The Epidii, the People of the Horse, the Golden People
  • Garan, Dark man healed by Ia
  • The Horned One, god of the Epidii and the Dark People
  • Ia, the Woman of the Village of the Dark People
  • Ishtoreth, Conan's youngest brother
  • Murna, Conan's wife
  • The Old One, the last clan chieftain's brother
  • Ord Long Arm, a warrior of the Epidii clan Council Ring
  • The Sun Lord, god of the Epidii
  • Tethra, son of Ia adopted by Murna and Conan


  • Conan's home, "On the flat coastwise strip below the place where the Glen of the Chariot-Crossing opened toward the Western Sea". A stockaded settlement with a stone-and-turf roundhouse housing five families.
  • The Glen of the Chariot-Crossing, home of the clan of the Epidii
  • The stream, where Murna's child is exchanged for Ia's
  • Sacred Place, where the Epidii New Spears are initiated
  • The Standing Stones, the Holy Place built by the Dark People on the high moors, feared by the Epidii
  • The village of the Dark People, a huddle of semi-subterranean bothies in a hollow across far across the moors

Publication historyEdit

In English:

  1. London : Hamish Hamilton (Antelope Books), 1974. Illus. Victor Ambrus.[1]
  2. London : Hamilton, 1975. Illus. Victor Ambrus.[2]

In translation:

  1. Das vertauschte Kind: fünf Erzählungen von Opfer, Mut und Abenteuer. [The Changeling Child: Five Stories of Sacrifice, Courage, and Adventure]. German by Alfred Nordmann. Stuttgart : Urachhaus, 1983.[3][4][5]

References Edit