The nisse popped out of a hole in the ground. "Drat," said the wizened little figure as he straightened his hood and looked around. He'd taken the wrong path from the Otherworld again. No snow- covered fields, no deep mountain forests, no cold rich scent of Norway.
And there, his mouth had been watering for that saucer of milk the farmer put out each evening. "Now will the fox get my supper," the nisse muttered, "and raid the chicken coop for a second course, no doubt." Even if he trudged the long dark path down and up again to the farmstead, he'd find the bowl empty. He ought to get on his way and make the journey, he supposed. At least to protect the chickens.
His stomach growled. First let him find a morsel to eat, then back to duty. The wind blew mild and wet, tossing maple leaves the size of his small brown jacket. The nisse snugged his red hood tighter on his head and set off to scavenge for his dinner.
A bright moon hung overhead, just shy of full. Ragged clouds scudded across it, touched with silver light as they fled away. Bare branches scratched at the moon's face.
On the wind came the ripe odor of cow manure. The nisse grinned. Dairy cows meant milk, and for milk he'd do just about anything. He trotted through the blowing dusk toward the barn he could smell somewhere upwind.
Voices rang, and bobbing lights appeared. Big people, out and about this late? The nisse crept closer to the commotion.
A lane cut across the landscape of fields and woods. Big folk, clumsy and noisy, thundered along the beaten path, lanterns glowing yellow-orange. The nisse heard the sounds of rocks thumping the ground, crashing through the brush. A shape came hurtling past the nisse, and he caught the scent of cat -- angry cat, frightened cat. He turned and followed the animal's path. Cats never run far.
Sure enough, he found the beast crouching under a deadfall, tail lashing and ears crimped sideways. A black cat with golden eyes. "What evil prowls the woods tonight, brother cat?" the nisse asked.
The cat hissed. 'Humans, out hunting what they won't eat."
The tail lashed again. "Some thanks I get for catching mice in their fields. Stupid, stupid humans. Always throwing rocks. Tonight worse than ever."
"It's Halloween, and I'm black. They think I help witches.'
The nisse tugged at his knee-long beard. "Do you?"
The cat emerged from its hiding spot and drew itself up to sit prim and proper, tail curled around the front toes. "I have never even met a witch. In these parts, brother goblin, we get few visitors from the Otherworld."
The nisse scratched his gnarled nose. "If the big people act so crazy tonight, is it maybe not such a good idea to steal milk."
The cat leaned forward and took a delicate sniff. "I had not thought the Otherworld would smell of chickens and goats."
"Ah, that be the smell of farmstead in this world of man. Barn and byre on the steep forested slopes of Norway. Land of snow and the stern north wind. A place where human folk do not have this Hallo-whatever-thing. I take a wrong turn and come here by mistake."
The cat's ears flicked. "Big bad human coming," it snarled and dashed into the night.
Stompings and trompings sounded in the undergrowth. Voices like monster crows cackled on the wind, and torch light flickered. The nisse stood uncertain a moment. An orange gourd flew through the air and smashed against the fallen log.
The nisse jumped in surprise. "Nei, takk!" he yelped as he skittered away from the dimming allure of milk.
A yell blasted the night air. The nisse covered his ears and ran. Big folk usually looked right past him, but tonight they were on the hunt.
More stones sailed by, and heavy feet shuddered the ground. The nisse darted from trunk to boulder to bush, following his instinct back to the hole in the ground.
By horrid bad luck the big people stayed on his trail. A stone clipped his arm. "I'm not a cat!" he shrieked in human speech. "Ikke en katt! Ikke en katt!" But the blundering ogres knew no Norwegian.
When his pursuers lagged behind, the nisse slowed to a walk, rubbing his injured arm. "Almost there," he muttered. Then he whirled. Something was after him again. "By Odin's big toe," he swore, "Never will I come up this hole again." He dove headfirst into the passage to the Otherworld.
Something else plunged into the hole right after him and bowled the nisse over. Something black and furry. "Brother goblin," the black cat begged. "Please take me with you!"
"Where I go," the nisse said as he grabbed a root and hauled himself upright, "is the weather cold and snowy."
"Never mind that. A land without Halloween, that's worth a shiver or two."
Ponderous footsteps rumbled overhead. The nisse waggled his bushy brow and stroked his beard. "Ya, sure, come along to a land of peace and quiet. I would not leave my worst enemy aboveground here, not on a night like this."
Two stone-shy creatures trotted into the deep dark passage to beyond, spurning the land of witchhunts, pumpkins, and Halloween.