The sun wasn’t down yet but the sky was dim, ochre with storm clouds. Lightning stabbed at the horizon. There was no smell of rain — the rainy season wasn’t for months anyway — but the clouds might herald a sandstorm, or even a dragon’s approach.
In the villa court five men crouched in a circle, throwing dice. They gave a shout of surprise, and the biggest of the men thumped his chest. “My pot again. Another throw?”
The others grumbled but tossed coins onto the pile in front of the big man. “Change those dice again,” one of them said. “I don’t trust you, Donnis. No one wins that many times in a row.”
“Any dice you please. I’m an honest man. Aren’t I honest, Bram? Tell Stephan how honest I am.”
“Honest as the master, bless him,” Bram said, and everyone laughed. The master was traveling and had left the five behind to guard the villa for a week, a task just as easily done by one man.
Stephan slapped the ground with his fist and Donnis threw the dice. They bounced off the pile of coins and rolled to a halt in front of Stephan. Double sixes. Again.
“It’s just not possible,” Stephan snapped. His face was flushed, and alone of all the men he seemed angry.
“It’s not probable,” Bram corrected him. “If you don’t want to lose your coins, stop throwing them in the pot.”
Stephan grunted and tossed two more coins onto the pile. A gust of wind scattered sand across them.
They hadn’t counted how many times Donnis had won or how much money they had all lost. They’d changed dice three times already and still Donnis threw sixes every time.
The game continued as the storm grew closer. No one but Donnis could turn a six, and gradually the men’s laughter began to seem forced. Young Gene, gawky and nervous at the best of times, started giving the sky anxious glances. Stephan’s cheeks were flushed, his jaw tight. Bram and Tomas, both of them older men who’d known Donnis for years, kept exchanging looks. And Donnis stopped boasting.
Thunder rumbled, and Donnis looked past the villa walls where the olive trees fluttered silver leaves. “I’m not keen to keep playing,” he said. “We should get inside.”
Stephan gave an angry grunt. “Won all you like for the day, have you? Throw again, and this time use my dice.”
“I’ll give you lads your money back,” Donnis said, glancing again at the boiling yellow clouds. The wind lashed suddenly, and the men hooked their sand veils over their faces.
“That’s as good as admitting you’ve cheated — ” Stephan began, but Bram interrupted him.
“Stephan, there’s no call for that. Donnis wouldn’t cheat us. It’s a streak of luck, and an odd one.”
“Throw again,” Stephan said, smacking his dice down in front of Donnis.
Donnis picked them up reluctantly. “I’m not keen to,” he mumbled. The wind whipped at his veil.
The others tossed more coins on the pile and Donnis shook the dice in one big hand. He usually threw them with a peculiar jerk of his wrist, but this time he just let them roll off his palm.
They bounced once and turned up sixes.
Stephan rocked back on his heels and started to speak, but a crack of thunder drowned his words. The wind increased, sending little devils of sand whirling across the courtyard.
Donnis put his hands to his hair, as though to hold it down. Bram shouted, “Run!” but before any of them could move the lightning struck.
It lit the courtyard in a glare of white light, and smelled of burnt air. The men fell backwards. Gene screamed.
A stunned minute later Donnis sat up. “We’re alive?”
The men grasped at each others’ arms, thumped shoulders and backs in relief. “Alive,” Bram said. “The gods watch over fools and madmen.”
“Where’d the coins go?” Gene quavered.
The coins were gone. Stephan’s dice still lay on the cracked flagstone, blackened. “Who stole them?” Stephan said, his voice shrill.
“None of us had time,” Bram said, “but we’ll all turn our pockets out to prove it.”
When they all sat behind little piles of their belongings, Stephan said, “I wronged you, Donnis. The gods took the coins.”
They all looked up at the sand-colored clouds; the hot wind tugged at their veils again. Gene whispered, “That’s not fair.”
“It was too much luck for one man,” Bram said. “The gods took what wasn’t rightfully his.”
“Did he lose his luck too?”
They all turned to stare at Donnis, who had gone pale. “All of it? All of my luck?”
“Throw the dice again, quick,” Bram said, and thrust his dice at the big man.
Donnis licked his lips. “Who’s in for one last round?”
Each man tossed a coin onto the blasted flagstone and leaned forward as Donnis tossed. Gene kept flicking glances up at the sky.
Without a word they all leaped to their feet and ran for the villa door.
Katherine Shaw lives in Pennsylvania with her dog and two cats.