The Golden Key is Free for a short time, plus First Chapter Excerpt

Golden Key ebook cover--smaller sizeThe Golden Key is free for a short time!

I’m really proud of this book–I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And for a couple of weeks, you can get it without plunking down the price of a McDonald’s coffee. 🙂

Here’s the blurb:

By 1918, Europe had spent over four years embroiled in the Great War. This terrible war to end all wars had consumed an endless stream of men—all shot, gassed, or obliterated by artillery in the trenches. Dieter, a German farmer, has no idea how his sons met their fate. He knows only that they are dead, and his wife, Gerda, refuses to accept it.

After he brings home a golden bird, still miraculously alive after being rescued from an iron box, Gerda declares she will go find the truth about their third son, Karl, whose body was never found. In a desperate attempt to keep his wife home, Dieter volunteers to search instead.

The bird guides Dieter safely to the front, but once they reach the battleground, they find only chaos. Exploding shells pepper the muddy ground as far as the eye can see. The fighting is so savage and constant that many bodies are never recovered for burial.

As his chances of finding his son’s grave tumble from slim to none, Dieter becomes trapped on the battlefield. It seems likely he will share his sons’ fate.

But the bird has other plans…


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And in case I haven’t convinced you yet, here’s most of the first chapter. 🙂


Elsass, Germany, November of 1918


Dieter gathered the last ears of corn from the north field and stretched, searching for the distant form of his wife. No smoke rose from the chimney of their half-timbered cottage, and the late autumn sunshine showed only fields of stubble where crops had flourished a few weeks before. He finally spotted Gerda, doggedly pushing the wheelbarrow toward the woodpile. When he caught up to her, she was tipping her load to the ground, the sticks making a brief clatter as they fell. She wiped her eyes before she turned around, her gesture both angry and furtive.

He wrapped a weary arm around her shoulders and drew her in. “Ach, Gerda,” he said, stroking her graying head. He knocked a pin loose, and her braid tumbled down to dangle at her waist. “They are with God now.”

The past four years had been hard enough to bring both of them to the edge of despair. The Kaiser’s army had taken their two eldest sons at the beginning of the war. For two long years the arrival of the mail was wrapped in both dread and hope, but in the fall of 1916, the final communication came. A letter from their sons’ commanding officer had politely expressed official regret that their boys died at Verdun. But his smug assurance that Dieter and his wife had been happy to give their sons to the state had made Gerda rip the missive into tiny pieces before throwing it into the fire and bursting into tears.

Then that same winter the soldiers took Karl, who was barely seventeen, even though Dieter tried to argue that the Kaiser needed him at home, to farm. Not even being in the midst of the brutal turnip winter, when so many were reduced to eating animal fodder, could dissuade the stone-faced officer who seemed to live only for his checklist. He’d given his men a curt command to check the barns as well, and when the soldiers left, they’d not only taken Karl, but also much of the food Dieter had set aside to last them until spring.

Now he was more careful. Everything that could be hung from the rafters or stuffed under the beds was kept in their cottage. Even Gerda, as tidy a hausfrau as he’d ever met, raised no objections. With only the two of them to work the farm, they were barely hanging on.

If only he’d thought to hide their son that day, he would still be alive.

“Karl,” Gerda whispered miserably, and Dieter wrapped his other arm around her and held her tight.

“It has been over six months since his last letter—he must be with his brothers. I am certain his fellow soldiers gave him a decent burial.” One image haunted him more than any other, his son’s clear blue eyes staring up unseeing at a bleak winter sky, while ravens and wild dogs picked at his bones. They hadn’t received a letter from the army, which meant anything could have happened to his body. But even if Karl’s company had been forced to retreat, surely a truce would have been called later to bury the dead. Both sides had lost brothers and sons to this terrible war, this war to end all wars.

Dieter tried to pin the braid back so it crowned her head again, but Gerda knocked his hand away and gave him an exasperated glare through her tears.

“What, and now you fix my hair as well?” She reached up and tugged gently at his own graying locks, which she kept trimmed to within an inch of his scalp. “You already have too much to do. Stick to what you know.”

He snorted. “Fine advice, coming from you. It is my job to bring in the wood.” Gerda had done her best, but most of the sticks were little more than kindling and wouldn’t last long in the stove.

Her blue eyes met his, and with relief, he saw a flash of annoyance in their depths. If she could still scold him, she hadn’t given up on living yet.

“I have no wish to freeze,” she shot back, and with a shudder added, “or to eat raw turnips. They are bad enough when cooked.” Not even Gerda’s skills in the kitchen had made the steady diet of turnips appealing, not that either of them could eat a turnip at all anymore. Karl’s last letter had come while they were eating turnip soup.

That sort of thinking was dangerous. Too many had been overwhelmed with grief and succumbed to starvation or disease. But if he surrendered to sorrow, Gerda would die. He suspected only his own survival kept her going as well.

“I am finished with the corn,” he said, “so I will take the wagon to the forest to chop more wood, and you will prepare a meal for when I return.” Sometimes, Gerda lost track of what she was doing, which she never used to do before, and he would come inside at dusk to find her knitting socks or mending shirts with no meal on the fire. It wasn’t the wait that bothered him so much as the sudden shock of despair in her eyes. If she thought herself useless, she’d have nothing to hold back the terrible emptiness that threatened to swallow them both.

He unloaded the wagon and climbed aboard, just as Gerda scurried outside again with a covered basket over her arm. “Take this,” she said, setting it on the bench next to him with a stern look. “And don’t forget it’s there. The squirrels can feast on something besides bread and cheese today.”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a half smile. “One time a squirrel gets into the food, and I hear about it the rest of my life. I will remember to eat, woman.”

She nodded sharply and headed to the house. Dieter watched her go inside before he clicked to their brown mare, and they headed down the dirt track that would take them to the nearby woods.

The wind picked up, and he buttoned his wool coat. The peaks to the west already bore streaky white coverlets, and his neighbor’s tidy farm showed no one about, only a telltale curl of smoke to let him know they still clung to life. The day had started mild for November, but the smell of snow was in the air. He should have brought his scarf. He rummaged in the basket for his noon meal and barked a short laugh. Gerda had wrapped his lunch in bright scarlet wool.

The scarf helped, but he was still glad to reach the edge of the woods and begin chopping. There were plenty of branches on the ground, casualties of the recent storms, and swinging the ax warmed his sluggish blood. It kept his mind busy, too, filled with images of stove-length firewood instead of his sons crying out for him in pain.

Several hours later, a snowflake drifting silently to the ground jolted his attention back to his surroundings. Snow had sifted through the branches to powder the ground. The wagon was nearly full—it would have to do.

He took hold of the mare’s headstall and led her back to the path, already blanketed in white. Still, they should have enough time to make it home. The first snowfall of the year was rarely serious.

But a few scattered snowflakes quickly became a steady stream. Dieter pulled his scarf up to cover his head, but the icy wind still blew through him. It would be worse out in the open—he dared not leave the protection of the trees.

He squinted into what had become a sea of churning white and retreated to the shelter of a massive oak. Then he bent down to brush the powdery snow from the ground so he could build a fire. A glint of gold beneath the sodden leaves caught his eye. Digging further, he wrapped his fingers around cold metal. He brought it up to his face in amazement.

A golden key! Now what would such a thing be doing out here?

The mare lipped his scarf, obviously hoping Dieter could create hay in a snowstorm, and he gave her a rueful pat. “I’m afraid both of us will have to do without supper. All we have to dine on is a mystery.” He held up the key, and she sniffed it before snorting in displeasure.

“Ah, but you don’t know what it unlocks. Perhaps a great treasure lies beneath our feet.” He’d said it in jest, but now that the words were out, the idea caught hold of him. And digging in the dirt would keep him warm enough for a little while.

His ax bit easily into the sodden ground, and he scooped away the dirt with the flat of the blade. He didn’t have to dig long—after a foot or so the ax hit…something solid at any rate. He levered the object up, fighting the mud for ownership, which it granted only with great reluctance. When he wiped away the smeary mud, an iron chest just filled the width of his outstretched hands. He rubbed the front of it with the edge of his scarf. Yes, there it was. A keyhole.

His hand trembling with more than the cold, he wriggled the key back and forth in the lock. It took several attempts, as mud had gotten into the gears, but it finally turned with a satisfying snick. He still needed the edge of his ax to pry the thing open, but when he did, he gasped in surprise. A small golden bird raised its head to meet his gaze.

It was no larger than a sparrow, but he’d never seen the like, so beautiful it made him ache. It fluttered its wings, and every shade of gold reflected back at him, from the lemony yellow of its crest to a deep burnished orange over its feathered back. As he reached toward the lovely thing, it launched itself from the box and circled three times before landing on his outstretched hand.

“Ach, what a beautiful creature you are,” he exclaimed. “Like a miniature phoenix.” He had nothing to offer it besides his lunch basket, but the bird hopped inside and pecked greedily at the few crumbs that remained.

Of course, it would be hungry. But how on earth had it survived at all? Locked in that box, it would have smothered long before it could starve. He shuddered as much from the sudden realization as the cold. It must be unearthly. All the old tales were full of the perils men faced when they tangled with creatures from outside this world. And he could not afford to bring any more trouble back to his house.

Perhaps his problem would simply fly away if he ignored it. He focused on the task at hand as he struck sparks from flint and blew on them until they caught. He waited until the flames were in no danger of dying before he raised his head again, but the bird still perched on the handle of the basket.

“Why do you linger? Whatever manner of creature you may be, you are free now. Be off.” He flapped his hands at the bird to shoo it away, but it hopped to the ground by the fire and gazed up at him as if pleading to stay.

Dieter’s shoulders slumped. If he drove the thing away now, he might kill it. And he would have offered the comfort of a fire to any stranded traveler. “Very well,” he said gruffly, “you may stay until the storm passes.” Surely, no harm could come of that.

The storm grew worse, and icy snowflakes piled ever higher outside their small circle of warmth. Dieter threw more wood on the fire, and yet more after that, until it blazed up bright and strong. He huddled close and watched the flames that flickered between shades of red and gold, lulling him until his head sunk down against his chest. He dozed until a hidden pocket of sap made a loud pop, and he startled, dislodging the bird from his knee.

He gave the creature a stern look and climbed to his feet. As he did he glanced at the sky, already darkened by the storm, and with the coming of night, nearly impenetrable. No moonlight could shine in a sky such as this. The snow was slackening, but darkness could be a formidable hazard all on its own. And he hadn’t brought a lantern with him.

He patted the mare’s neck. “I suppose I could carry a torch and walk in front. You wouldn’t shy away from a bit of fire, would you, old girl?” He grabbed a lit brand whose end stuck out of the fire and held it up. The mare snorted but made no other protest.

When he turned around, the bird was gone. That was one problem solved at least.

The wind had died down, which was both a blessing and a curse—the now-gentle breeze came from the west. It carried with it a faint growl like distant thunder, but this sound was man-made: the front. Even though it was many miles away, the rumble was distinct enough that he always tried to shepherd Gerda indoors before nightfall.

He started to kick some snow over the fire, but a bright golden streak dived in front of his face, wings beating furiously. “What are you doing back here?” he demanded. “I have no time for your foolishness.”

But its attitude was not playful at all. It flew off briefly into the darkness, and then returned to the circle of firelight to land on his shoulder. It pecked his cheek, and before Dieter could raise a hand to brush it away, it shot off into the night again. This time when it returned, it perched on the mare’s head.

Both times the creature had flown in the same direction, so even though he could hardly believe he was doing it, he asked the bird, “Do you want me to follow you?” When it responded with a bright cheep, he said, “Very well, but only because it is the path I must take myself. I need to get home—my wife will be fretting that I am late.”

The bird gave him an exasperated chirp and stared down the path from its perch on the mare’s head, as if it didn’t trust him to find his own way. Dieter led the mare slowly; the snow now covering the rutted track made it more a matter of guesswork. He swung the torch from side to side, alert for any fallen branches that might be hidden under the white coverlet.

When they reached the main track, Dieter turned the mare toward home, but the bird launched itself and became a scolding fury. It flew back and forth in front of him, and pecked at the horse, which shied. Then, apparently lost to reason, it flew at Dieter and pecked his nose.

Completely out of patience with the thing, he batted his hands in front of his face as though he were shooing away midges. He was freezing, the snow had gotten into his boots, and Gerda would be worried sick. “What is wrong with you?” he yelled. “I must get back home.”

“Dieter?!” Gerda’s faint voice, carried on the breeze, came from behind him—not from the farm. “Is that you? Please say it is you.”

“Gerda! What are you doing out in this?” He turned, and barely discernible in the distance behind him, he caught a glimpse of a light. He stuck his torch into a snowdrift and pelted heavily down the road. When he caught up to her, she was holding the lantern aloft to peer into the gloom, and her brown wool skirt was soaking wet.

She shivered, causing the lantern’s flame to wobble, so he took it from her gently and set it on the ground. “Gerda, come. It is time to go back home.”

Her eyes widened. “No! Karl is still out here. He’s lost and cannot find his way back. He could catch his death in this cold.”

Dear God, no. Not this. “Gerda, you can help no one if you are ill. We will get you in front of the fire before we discuss this further. Come.”

He bent to pick up the lantern, glad that she made no further protest. He had no idea what he could do to heal her mind. If she took to wandering…death stalked everyone, a constant companion. Make one small mistake, out of hundreds, and everything you loved was gone. How could he possibly save her from this?

He got her settled on the wagon seat and wrapped his coat around her, ignoring her protests. The bird landed on her shoulder and flipped its wings at him as if to say, “So, there.”

He gave it a long look, but this was no time for an argument. Yes, it had led him to Gerda, but she was not safely indoors yet. He left the lantern clutched in his wife’s hand and picked up his torch again. Then he grabbed hold of the mare’s headstall and plodded forward.

He was just reflecting that chivalry was a fine thing, but it would be greatly improved if it would also keep him warm, when a growl ahead made his skin crawl. “Whatever happens, stay in the wagon!” he cried as he strode ahead, swinging his torch like a club.

Two snarling hounds barred his way, most likely someone’s former pets, but so hungry they were lost to reason. He could count every rib even in the weak light from his torch. He swung hard at the nearest one, wincing as it yelped.

All pity faded as the other latched onto his calf. He had to batter it on the head several times to get it off him, and when it backed away, it didn’t go far. He drew his only weapon, a sturdy folding knife, and waited.

A cry from Gerda swung his head in her direction, but then a bite on his other leg made him lash out wildly. The dog whimpered and held fast. He plunged his knife into the base of its neck, and the dog fell. Limping, he hurried back to his wife.

She had found the ax and was fending off yet another brindled dog with it. He grabbed it by the tail and yanked. It landed sprawling onto the snow but sprang up again before he could cut its throat.

It leaped at him, and he blocked with the torch, but it latched onto his arm instead. He swung wildly in response to the sharp surge of pain, and a piteous whine made him wince again. But that didn’t stop him from stabbing harder, and this time the teeth released.

Gerda was sobbing, calling his name over and over, so he hauled himself painfully up onto the wagon and put an arm around her. With his other hand he gathered the reins and gave them a gentle shake, trusting to the mare’s night vision. He didn’t think it wise to go any further on foot this night.


Also, images from the book can be found here:

Happy reading!

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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4 comments on “The Golden Key is Free for a short time, plus First Chapter Excerpt
  1. balroop2013 says:

    Thank you Cathleen, the first chapter is fascinating enough to inspire further reading. I must grab my copy. Don’t know how I missed it earlier!


  2. Congrats, Cathleen. You deserve it!

    Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

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