by Tom Holt

(world preview)


 Oh look," observed Napoleon, "there's a speck of dust."
 Because of the marvellous acoustics in the vast, crowded amphitheatre, his muttered observation rolled through the rows of seats and out across the stage like summer thunder. Nobody moved or spoke for a very long time.
 "Coo," said Genghis Khan, eventually, "so there is."
 A week passed uneventfully. Far away, above, outside, the latest minor war sputtered ambitiously as it swept through a medium-sized town (Hundreds feared dead, the newspaper men typed, big soppy grins on their faces) and drops of blood froze as they sank into the snow; but this is a better place, a peaceful place. No war here.
 "Are you sure it's a speck of dust?" quavered a frail little voice somewhere near the back.
 "Shut up, Attila, I'm trying to concentrate."
 In the middle of the stage stood The Wall; a plain, brick wall some seventeen feet high, painted white. From the far end of the auditorium it looked so tiny that the men squashed together on the back row had to use massively powerful binoculars to see it at all.
 "That's not a speck of dust," said Frederick the Great, adjusting the eyepieces, "that's a gnat."
 "Rubbish," replied Ulysses S Grant, a thousand rows further down. "That's dust, I'm telling ya."
 "You reckon?"
 Two more weeks passed. The latest minor war fizzled out into wussy peace talks, and at the back of the auditorium a door opened and the usher discreetly escorted a few new arrivals to their seats.
 "Welcome," he whispered.
 "Thank you," replied one of the new arrivals. Um, where is this?"
 The usher smiled pleasantly. "Valhalla," he said.
 The new arrivals sat down, and the usher issued each of them with a warm rug, a thermos flask and a pair of incredibly sophisticated binoculars. "Enjoy," he added, and withdrew.
 A month slipped by; after which, one of the newbies managed to summon up enough courage to tap his neighbour gently on the sleeve.
 "Excuse me."
 "Piss off, I'm trying to concentrate."
 A fortnight later, he tried again. "Sorry to bother you," he said, "but - "
 "Now what?"
 The newbie took a deep breath. "Excuse me," he said, "but what are you all looking at?"
 "The Wall, of course," replied the old hand, tucking the rug closer around his knees. "Now keep quiet, for God's sake. We're just getting to the interesting bit."
 "Ah," said the newbie; and for the next ten days he stared hard at the Wall through his state-of-the-art Zeiss lenses. The newbie was an intelligent man, and observant - well, you didn't get to be second-in-command of the entire Air Force without being pretty damn observant. "I don't get it," he whispered.
 "Christ," hissed his neighbour angrily (and thanks to the excellent acoustics, he shared the remark with the whole audience) "don't you ever stop talking?"
 The newbie was a master tactician. "I'll gladly shut up," he replied, "if you tell me what you're all staring at."
 The old hand sighed. "The paint, of course."
 "The paint?"
 "On the wall."
 Far away, above, outside, another minor war cautiously nuzzled its way into the world, like a snowdrop blossoming. "But that's crazy," muttered the newbie. "Watching paint dry; what kind of eternal reward is that for a lifetime of service and a glorious death in battle?"
 "Reward?" The old hand looked at him oddly. "You fool, this is Valhalla"

Text reproduced with permission.

2000 Uwe Milde

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