The frozen earth crunched under Maxwell’s heavy boots as he traipsed toward the old and ruined chapel on Uncle Clayton’s estate.
The first Christmas in the trenches, and the following years of war had left a permanent chill in his bones. Coming home, Maxwell had wished only for a long, hot bath and a warm chat by the blazing fire with Uncle Clayton. Instead, he found a darkened house in disrepair and disarray, and a new grave on the ancient family plot.
The chill in Maxwell’s bones deepened upon learning his cousins had inherited Uncle Clayton’s fortune and plundered the house of its riches. The icy wind brought tears to Maxwell’s eyes as he pulled his collar up and trudged towards the ruined chapel. He willed himself not to glance back at the old house, now dark and cold in the short wintry day.
His cousins did not want the house—too much upkeep, Maxwell surmised—and left the unpleasant surprise and financial burden on him. How had he offended them? His cousins’ loathing of him was palpable in the state they had left his beloved uncle’s house. Perhaps that was the great insult, the sincere and respectful love that existed between him and Uncle Clayton, and the fear that the old and heirless widower would leave everything to Maxwell.
No one had informed him of Uncle Clayton’s death that first Christmas in the trenches, when they had all warmed themselves around a weak fire sparked by a tenuous truce. Maxwell’s eyes watered from the biting wind and the bitter intuition as he roamed over the sprawling frozen grounds. Although unable to prove it, he realized that by leaving only the house in his name they had left him in debt and impoverished.
“They told him I died,” Maxwell’s teeth gnashed with rage, and his frame rattled with certainty.
In his mind’s eye, he saw the lie whispered by the old man’s sickbed while their lawyer waited with a new will and testament in hand. Cold tears spilled from Maxwell’s stinging eyes and that permanent chill gnawed at his bones.
Enraged, Maxwell kicked a stone and watched it roll away. The memory of a warm summer’s day welled up from the bottom of his mind; Uncle Clayton strode beside a ten-year-old Maxwell. Uncle Clayton chatted while the boy kicked and played with the stones and pebbles littering the grass-lined path.
“You know, your ancestors hid money here. A great big hoard of looted treasure,” Uncle Clayton said with a playful glint in his eye and mischief quivering from the corner of his mouth.
“Uh-huh,” Maxwell replied and rolled his eyes.
Even then, he had known of Uncle Clayton’s penchant for telling tall tales. Maxwell himself had been the butt of many a fantastic prank.
Uncle Clayton continued, “your great-great-grandfather was a privateer, and he buried the loot captured from a Spanish vessel somewhere on this estate.”
“Oh, Uncle,” Maxwell sighed, “if we already owned this place, why would my ancestor need to be a privateer? We can trace our family’s wealth back to William the Conqueror, you said.”
Uncle Clayton sniggered and patted the boy on the head.
Maxwell reached the old medieval chapel. His cousins had not touched this building, no doubt they deemed it useless. It was chilly and dank, and he shivered from that inner freeze that never subsided. Ancient pictures with dark and faded images hung on the walls in rotting frames. It smelled of moss-covered stone and damp incense. A ray of silver sunshine shone through the tarnished stained-glass windows and illumined an image of Saint George and the Dragon, and another boyhood memory crawled out of its abyss.
Maxwell smiled, enraptured by the painting, his eyes drinking in every color and every stroke. Uncle Clayton sat beside him, and a peaceful silence settled over the ruined chapel and its leaky roof, while outside, summer life buzzed, chirped and bubbled. The sun dipped on the horizon; the chapel glimmered with the pinks and blues and purples of the stained-glass, and Uncle Clayton announced it was time to leave.
“You know,” Uncle Clayton spoke as they walked in the gleaming sunset.
Maxwell hid a smirk from him; Uncle Clayton’s cock-and-bull stories always started with “you know,”.
“Dragons always protect their treasure,” Uncle Clayton began, but Maxwell sprinted ahead, challenging his uncle to a race.
Now, the young man stood before the painting, longing for his uncle’s fanciful yarns. Cool sunlight shimmered on the wall, and Maxwell caught sight of a small golden glint just beneath the crooked frame. Maxwell tried to pry the painting off the wall, but it was well-fastened. Yet, just beneath the frame, right where the mossy stone had eroded, he glimpsed a tiny nook from which glimmered flashes of gold, silver, emerald and ruby.
Maxwell beamed, “Dragons always protect their treasure.”