In Andre Norton’s 1970 standalone novel Dread Companion, Kilda c’Rhyn’s great tragedy is
Unfortunately, I inherited my mother’s sex but my father’s spirit and interests. I would have been supremely happy as a scout, a seeker-out of far places and strange sights. My favored reading among the tapes were the accounts of exploration, trading on primitive planets, and the like. Perhaps I might have fitted in with the free traders. But among them women are so few and those so guarded and cherished that I might have been even more straitly prisoned on one of their spaceports, seeing my mate only at long intervals, bound by their law to remarry again if his ship was reported missing for more than a stated time.
It may be so far in the future the location of Earth is but a rumour but sexism is alive and well.
Abandoned by her spacer father, crèche-educated and unsuited to life in her mother’s clan, Kilda is desperate to escape Chalox, the world of her birth, before she is consigned to those roles deemed appropriate for women. When Gentlefem Guska Zobak offers to hire Kilda as her house aide on the distant world Dylan, Kilda doesn’t look too closely at the details.
She should have.
House aide really translates as “nanny.” The frail Guska has two young children, a daughter named Bartare and a son named Oomark. The plan is for Kilda to assist Guska in raising the two children while Guska waits for her husband’s contract on backward Dylan to run out. This is not to be: by the time the family and their servant reach Dylan to join Guska’s husband, he is dead, victim of an apparent accident.
Guska does not handle bereavement well, nor does she tolerate being marooned on galactic backwater Dylan for the months or years before the arrival of a ship to Chalox. The widow’s condition rapidly declines, leaving Kilda to tend the two children.
But there is much more to eerie Bartare than is apparent. The girl has a purpose on Dylan that has nothing to do with affairs of her supposed parents. There are other worlds only a step away, for those who know the right paths, and Bartare is one who does.
Pity for Kilda and Oomark that their value to Bartare is not as companions, but as sacrifices.
It might be convenient to divide speculative fiction stories into science fiction and fantasy … but that’s not always possible, as this novel shows. Norton gives us space opera, with rockets and blasters. She also paints a world straight out of myth, where the Folk swap their children for human babies and where a few hours on one side of the gate can be decades on the other.
Norton isn’t subtle about hinting that Bartare is Other;
Bartare was small, fine-boned, and delicate-looking, like her mother. But she had no languor. Instead, there was such a tension of concentration about her small, thin body as reminded me disturbingly of that I had seen Lazk Volk display on occasion. Her hair was twisted back from her face, which came to a point with a small, sharp chin, with silver cords that gleamed the more because the hair they confined was dead black. She had very well-marked brows, which met over her nose, so they formed a solid bar across her face. And her eyelashes were unusually thick about eyes, almost as deeply sable as her hair. In contrast, her skin was pale, having no trace of color in the cheeks and only a faint tinting of lips.
Pale-skinned, dark-haired and monobrowed! The mark of the changeling! I assume. And it is not just her personal appearance that distinguishes her.
Her dress was dark green, an odd color for a child, yet one I would always thereafter associate with Bartare.
Something Norton doesn’t make clear is what happened to the children’s mother after they and Kilda vanished, apparently forever. Nothing good, I would assume. There’s lots of tragedy in this novel, but the unstated fate of a mother who never found out what happened to her children might be the worst.
The novel ends on something of a cliffhanger, with Kilda facing a journey whose destination is unclear. There is room for a sequel but as far as I know Norton never wrote it.
Dread Companion has had many editions over the years. Used bookstores, (online or brick-and-mortar) are your friends.