The Raveners – Chapter 2
Lexa sat in the car and looked out at the beautiful French countryside. She felt nervous. It was her first dig and she just didn’t know what to expect. Certainly she had done a few historical surveys, and walked the trenches at different points in her studies, but this was so much different. This was like going into the belly of the beast itself!
For a woman who had said to her boss she was all packed, there had been an awful lot of packing and repacking last night. What did you wear to an archaeological dig in a hundred year old trench where there were dead bodies? She also pondered the whole umbrella question for far too long. It was France in the fall. It could be cold and rainy. If it was sunny, she might need need it to keep the sun off her head. Lexa didn’t tan well. She went from ghost to lobster in ten seconds flat.
As for clothing, she didn’t really own jeans or much in the way of casual trousers. Some cute little capris but how appropriate were those in October? In the end, she had run around the corner to the Camden Debenham’s and spent far too much money on some new clothing for her trip to the trench. Where she had really done well was with a fantastic pair of boots which were probably entirely inappropriate for the matter at hand! Why buy the ugly, sturdy hiking style boots when she could buy the very shiny, faux riding boots? Besides! They had such a sense of occasion to them!
Not trying to seem completely stupid, Lexa pared back her makeup set. She was an ex goth and rather inclined to err on the side of too much make up versus not enough. Archivists didn’t really care about how much makeup a person wore. Archeologists might be a bit different. In fact, they might not be wearing makeup at all. The more she argued with herself internally, the more she realised how incredibly vapid she was being. She was Dr. Alexandra Horne, after all. If she wanted to wear makeup, that was her business.
In the end, she had crawled into bed far later than she planned. Sleep had been in short supply. Lexa was nervous, of course, but this practically felt like Christmas. She didn’t want to see the skeletons but to see an in situ trench? Not a rebuilt, preserved trench at a historic sight, but the the real thing? What could be better than that? From a purely professional perspective, the things she could learn about daily life in the trenches were numerous. German dugouts were far more sophisticated than the Allied version. Some were considered to be quite comfortable and well provisioned.
Daily life in the trenches was one of her major interests. How men lived like that for so long without mutiny or complaint? While the French actually had mutinied, the British and German forces had lived in such terrible conditions for years. The acceptable level of casualties in the war were incomprehensible by today’s standards. The British allowed for 1500 casualties a day in any given sector. In fact, if things seemed ‘too quiet’, the leaders encouraged skirmishes so the Germans wouldn’t get too comfortable. The loss of life- the waste of life- had always horrified her. Men treated as so much wastage!
She didn’t know what time she fell asleep, but it felt like it was the wee hours. Lexa lurched awake when her alarm went off at seven, feeling like a zombie. A quick shower, and then she tightly braided two plaits into her hair. With the ends, she created a neat chignon at the nape of her neck. With luck, her hair would stay without much fuzz for two days. A quick snack as she dressed and then she had run out of the house as if the devil himself was on her tail.
Her trip across had been uneventful and the Eurostar was very comfortable. Lexa had sat in her seat in half a doze for much of the trip. Going through the tunnel itself was not very exciting. When they came out on land, it was like being born again. The sun was shining and as always, France was lovely.
Dr. Bennett’s research assistant, Jason Darby, had met her at the Lille train station. Darby was an eager PhD candidate, only a few years younger than herself. He had that student’s mop of unruly and untrimmed hair; whipcord lean in dirty khakis and a plaid shirt. His day’s scruff was a dark shadow on his thin, angular face. He had seemed a little surprised by her youth and was eager to fill her in on the drive in his rattling, ancient Vauxhall.
Unfortunately, Dr. Bennett was unable to meet her for the planned briefing, as excavation of a second tunnel entrance had kept him at the dig site, but Darby had provided her with a binder of pictures and information on the complex they had found. Lexa and the student had sat in a cafe as she had gone through the pictures. It was really quite extraordinary.
The initial find was a ten foot deep and forty feet long, essentially surface level trench with a few bunkers. On its own, the first trench was an amazing discovery. Filled in with mud, probably from a bombardment, much of it had been a laborious excavation. What was mud in its day had turned almost into clay in the intervening years. They had had to work their way along, inch by inch, and the project was on the verge of losing its funding when they found a small trapdoor in one of the bunkers. That trapdoor opened to a ladder down into a room untouched by the mud. A ten by ten room which was obviously the entrance to a command complex. While rooms like this had been captured during the war, nothing like it had been seen since 1920 when they were filled in.
But the horror was that the men in this underground complex had been buried alive. When the original trench had been filled in, it seemed that these men had been trapped inside, unable to get out. There was evidence on the trap door that they had tried. The underside had been chipped at, scratched and battered. But how do can you shift tons of dirt on top of a trap door?
The pictures of the old, splintered trapdoor bottom broke Lexa’s heart. How long had it taken them to die? She’d asked Darby and he’d shrugged. No way to know. It depended on the amount of fresh air and food down there. He suspected there were some notes home to family in all the paperwork they found, but he wasn’t sure. He was an archeologist, not a linguist.
Lexa had the feeling by the end of their lunch that Darby was a little smitten with her. His eyes had a twinkle in them that a man gets when he is feeling his hormones. Truth be told, he was a rather interesting fellow. Doing his PhD at Oxford, which could be forgiven despite her being a Cambridge girl.
Now on the drive, she could feel him sneaking glances at her from the corner of his eyes. “It’s pretty isn’t it?” he said.
“It is. How much longer will you be out here?” Lexa asked in turn.
“I don’t know. We had Imperial War Museum, and Oxford funding, which was almost gone when we found the new complex. I heard Bennett saying there was some interest to give us more to keep going. I think that’s why you are out here. IWM will go to their deep pocketed sponsors for more if it looks warranted,” Darby said as he shaded his eyes from the glare of the autumn sun. “In another week or so, the weather will stop the dig anyway. We’ve had a nice October, but this part of France is famous for its mud. As you well know.”
“How much more do you think is down there?”
“Three rooms, roughly ten by ten, a bunk room, a dead end shaft on Monday morning and now this new shaft we found last night. I think the dead end shaft is a cave in, or somewhere they tried to dig their way out. How grim is that? It isn’t as well crafted as the rest.”
Something had been on Lexa’s mind all night. “Wouldn’t they have dug escape tunnels? I mean, it makes so little sense that they would build so deeply down into the earth and not have some sort of escape tunnel for just this sort of thing.”
Darby nodded and swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “You would think so. The construction is well done. Most of the tunnels and rooms are well sapped. Definitely planned and executed by engineers. Maybe the other exit caved in as well. This is such an unprecedented find, we don’t know what to expect from day to day.”
“Those poor, poor men.”
“Those poor, poor Huns!”
“Don’t say that!” she exclaimed. “They died. They aren’t our enemies now. And they couldn’t have suffered in any worse a fashion. Buried alive and waiting for the air to run out? I can’t think of a worse way to go. Waiting for… hoping for rescue? Praying for someone to come? Then the hope slowly running out as your friends die?” It was more of an outburst than Lexa had intended but at the same time, it was far past the time when these men were the enemy.
He had the grace to look suitably chastened. “Of course. I am sorry. I meant no disrespect. To be honest, Bennett would have my balls for scorning them.”
Lexa dropped her chin. After so many years of studying the Royal Bavarian Army, many of the men felt as close as family to her. The Graf von Wittelsbach and her obsession with him aside, there were so many of those men and she knew all their stories. She caught a lot of flak for being a female military historian, let alone one who studied the Hun. In the end, however; they were all young men who went off to war and died for their country.
“The dead are apolitical. They paid for their country’s misdeeds,” she found herself whispering. “And those poor devils never had a fighting chance, once that trench caved in above them. How terribly afraid they must have been. Waiting for the sound of rescue and then just waiting for oblivion.”
Darby shifted gears and then reached over to touch her arm. “Yes. You’ve made a good point. I think when I went into that first room, it really scared me. They are just laying there. Some are sitting in chairs. Some are laying in the bunk room. But they are mummies. Perfectly mummified. The uniforms hanging on their bodies. It’s uncanny. You see them sitting there, and from some angles, it’s like they are sleeping.”
Lexa met his eyes, feeling a deep panic in her soul. “I was told they were skeletons! Nothing scary, is what I was told!”
He shook his head and returned his eyes to the road. “Not scary. Uncanny. It was so cold and dry down there. In some, the uniforms have rotted and there isn’t much skin left. They are just skellys in tatters. But the first you will see is almost perfect, if shrunken.”
She reached up and fingered the cross around her neck. It was her great-grandmother’s and a family heirloom. Not overly religious, she suddenly derived a bit of comfort from the piece. Wearing it was originally a gothic affectation cum good luck charm. “So it’s a tomb filled with mummies. That’s not ominous at all. Not at all!”
Her companion was silent for a moment and then he laughed. “Put that way, all that’s missing is a bull whip and Indiana Jones to save the day!”
“You are the archeologist! I hope you have your bullwhip in the back! I haven’t seen the fedora,” Lexa joked and felt a little lighter.
He groaned. “Poxy Indiana Jones. Really, it’s the stereotype that kills me. What if I wanted to wear a bowler hat? Or a trilby? A boater or a panama? No! I am an archeologist and I have to wear a fedora to be taken seriously!”
“So long as it isn’t a baseball cap, I am sure your average girl would be positively agog.”
Darby laughed and winked at her. “Fine then. What would you prefer?”
“Go big or go home! How about a cavalier hat? With feathers. You could have ever so practical over-the-knee boots. Much better than steel toes. Freshen up in the evening with a bit of lace and everything would be fine. Perfect even!” Lexa couldn’t resist being a bit cheeky. It helped settle the knot of tension she felt in her chest.
“Hmm. I don’t think I have the stature for lace. When a man wears lace, he damn well better have the cojones to back it up. And the puffy shirt might not work on the dig!” He paused for a moment, and then continued cautiously. “So how does a nice girl end up becoming a military historian who specialises in the Hun in WWI?”
It was Lexa’s turn to groan. “Oh God! You aren’t one of those, are you? One of the ‘must have penis to study war’ types?”
He shook his head in a curt denial. “Not at all! But girls who like war are rare! And sexy! But rare! I am a battlefield archeologist! We only see girls in books and magazines.”
“And porn on the internet?” she teased him easily.
“I said archeologist. I know not of this internet of which you speak! Even my car is an artifact. I only have a mobile phone under duress. It’s my fashionable and trendy younger brother’s cast off from five years ago. It doesn’t even have a camera.”
“That is under duress!”
“No. I just don’t care about all that stuff.”
“You are living up to the stereotype now! I want to see your bullwhip!” As she said it, it came out sounding far more like a double entendre and there was a noticeable change in the temperature in the car.
Lexa decided to just dodge. Sure. She walked herself into that one; she could turn around and walk right back out of it. “To answer your question, I don’t know. Just fascinated me, I guess. I was morbid in my youth, and there isn’t anything much more morbid than the Great War.”
Darby looked disappointed that she didn’t keep up the banter. “That is certainly true. My dissertation is more specific to earlier conflicts; Crimea and the like, but with the Russians being all grabby over there, not much digging is going on. I am so glad to have this opportunity. Truthfully, this is a once in a lifetime chance. Bennett is talking about the papers we will write about this. Especially if we get more funding and depending on what we find down there!”
“That’s fantastic.” In fact, listening to his enthusiasm made her a bit sad for the old days when she was writing papers all the time. Not that she really wanted to go back to pure academia, but sometimes she missed it. “Publish or perish.”
They pulled onto a quieter country road and the car rolled towards forest of marquee tents. “There it is! Our tent city.” Darby pulled into a rough parking area beside an assortment of other cars. “Are you ready for something completely surreal? This is going to blow your mind!”