It was impossible to destroy a place so covered in scum and debauchery as Tortuga, but, Natasha Romanova thought as she stood on the cliff overlooking the city, somebody had certainly done his best to try.
Next to her, Doctor Bruce Banner made a noise in the back of his throat. “That explains the smoke,” he said, rather needlessly. They’d been tracking it through the jungle since dawn.
Tortuga lay nestled in the harbor below them, thick smoke rising in columns from its jailhouse, its major public houses, and several other buildings. Some of the jungle surrounding the city had burned; she could see scorch marks on the cliffs and new pockmarks from cannon-fire. She scanned the skies, searching for an upside down flag. The smoke made it difficult to see, but the flag did not seem to be flying yet. It didn’t soothe her at all: Fury or any of his lieutenants could have simply been unable to reach the pole and fly the warning.
“They’ll have need of a surgeon,” she said.
“Yes.” Bruce was sure-footed as they climbed from the cliff. It had been a strenuous journey from his hideout, but the doctor, soaked in sweat and swatting at flies, hadn’t complained. Two years in the jungle had left their mark. Though he’d pointed out time and again that he was only coming along to confer with one of Fury’s doctors in Tortuga about a sickness facing some of the children, he had dropped his protests at the sight of smoke that morning. Natasha knew he had already arrived at that conclusion. This was no longer a favor for Fury. “Any thought as to who might have done this?”
“Fury has enemies a-plenty,” Natasha said, which she figured Bruce would know was not an answer. The surgeon did not deal well with manipulation, and Natasha did not deal well with the truth. They were safest if they kept to that middle ground.
As they jogged, she categorized what she had seen. She’d noticed the pattern of damage on the buildings she could make out in the distance, but she hadn’t brought a spyglass with her and she had nothing in the way of Clint’s eyesight, so she couldn’t be sure that the attack had originated in the harbor. If the attack had come from the harbor, she was willing to bet her gold that it had been a heavy ship with long-range cannons. The pattern of destruction simply fit.
“It’s a pity,” Bruce said, panting a bit, “that they waited until you were not in town to attack. I imagine it might not have gone so well for them if you had been on hand.”
Since Bruce had been one of the few that had survived the night she’d earned her nickname, Natasha inclined her head at the compliment. “The same could be said of you, Doctor.”
“There would be more damage for everyone if I had. He does not choose sides.”
The good doctor had a point.
Perhaps Tortuga of 1745 was not as prosperous as the Tortuga of yore, in the golden age when any ship who fancied a life of buccaneering could sail the sea free from persecution. Times had grown tough with the Royal Navy tightening its stranglehold on the Caribbean waters, and Tortuga definitely showed the wear. When Natasha had left, though, it had at least been a bustling city where pirates and citizens moved about as they liked. Now, it felt eerily empty, not a blessed soul in sight. Shop windows were shattered, the precious glass glittering in the stone-paved streets. Buildings, saved from ruin only by the previous night’s rain, still smoked, bringing the scent of char to the air. Natasha looked about, expecting to see town-folk beginning to rebuild already. She saw no one.
The back door to the Violet Herald—it had been the Violent Herald once, but Clint had had an “accident” with a sling-shot that resulted in the “N” going missing—stood open, and there was smoke, but Natasha could smell meat cooking. She entered and neatly side-stepped the cleaver Volstagg the Cook threw. “Only me,” she said, holding her hands up.
The ex-viking lowered a second cleaver. “Beg pardon, Mistress Natasha.”
“Your aim is improving,” she said, and the viking snickered. “Doctor Banner is with me. Perhaps you could skip the greeting?”
“It would be much appreciated.” Bruce edged inside and smiled at the cook, hesitantly. This man was a far cry from the arrogant surgeon Natasha had met on the decks of the HMS Ferrous, but Bruce had cause for hesitance these days. “Greetings, Volstagg. Are you well?”
“As can be, Doctor. Mistress Natasha, you’ll want to go inside, they’re a-meetin’.”
Natasha didn’t bother to ask who was there, she’d find out soon enough. “Make sure the doctor gets something to eat.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce said, but Natasha was already heading into the main room of the pub.
Fury’s establishment was one of the many public houses offered in Tortuga, but it lacked the atmosphere that most irates wanted. Prostitutes flocked toward Calico Lensherr’s pub or No Legs Charlie’s Academy o’ Rum for that sort of entertainment, which suited Governor Nicholas Fury just fine. The ex-privateer was too busy seeing to Tortuga’s rather dubious government to run a successful pub, which meant that more often than not, the main room served as a meeting place for his most trusted cadre of lieutenants.
Natasha was not surprised to find Maria Hill inside, arms folded across her chest and a stormy look on her face. There was a still-healing wound on the woman’s temple, and her dress looked rumpled and torn from battle, but her eyes were bright and angry as she greeted Natasha with a nod.
Fury stood not far from Hill, hands on his hips. As ever, he wore all black, his boots polished to a high mirror shine. There was not a single smudge on his black overcoat, which he wore despite Tortuga’s sweltering climate. “’Bout time you showed your face, Romanova,” he said, glaring at her with his good eye.
Natasha had made good time, and she knew it. “Mayhap don’t send me away before the next big attack,” she said, and took her normal seat. The one next to it was empty, but she didn’t worry. Not yet, at least. “I found Banner.”
“He come back with you this time?”
“Aye, I did,” Bruce said, finally coming into the pub. He had his hands clasped together, another sign of nerves. “Though I’m not sure it was the wisest thing to do. Do you have wounded?”
“No,” Fury said, looking distinctly disgusted.
Bruce looked about in confusion, as it was obvious from the overturned tables that the battle had extended into Fury’s pub. “No?”
“He took ’em,” Maria said, her scowl deepening.
“I beg your pardon? He?”
“That would be the Count of Jotunheim, an old friend of yours, I believe.”
Natasha and Bruce exchanged a look, and Bruce removed his spectacles. “That’s impossible, Governor,” he said. “The last we saw Loki, he…”
“Had a little trouble picking up a cutlass, much less using one,” Natasha said.
“He seems to have gotten past that little inhibition, given that he showed up in our harbor last night and opened fire.” Fury sat down at the table, and like magic, Volstagg appeared from the kitchen with a pint of rum, “He opened fire and his men came ashore. They fought like…”
“They fought like they were cursed,” said a new voice, and Phillip Coulson stepped inside, wiping his hands clean on a handkerchief. He was, as always, dressed impeccably in a frock coat of the latest fashion. And he was also alone, Natasha saw with narrowed eyes. “They could not be killed. You cut a man down, a fatal blow, and he climbed to his feet even while he bled.”
“Cursed?” Bruce asked, looking alarmed.
“None shared your curse, Doctor,” Fury said.
“Otherwise this whole town would not be still standing,” Maria said, and as unnecessary as the comment was, Natasha felt the other woman had a point.
“How is it possible?” Natasha asked, leaning forward on her elbows, her arms crossed on the table. It wasn’t ladylike, which was precisely why she did it. “Last I saw Loki, he was a shade.”
“And he still is. Barton’s arrow flew clean through him.”
“Where is Clint?” Bruce asked, and Natasha nearly spared him a grateful look for saving her from having to be the one to ask.
She forgot all about that, though, for Coulson’s face immediately took on a set expression, the one he used when he was forced to tell somebody something unpleasant. Her heart began to pound, but she struggled to find her balance—something that had never caused her difficulty on deck or on dry land. She managed to keep her voice even as she asked, “Killed?”
Coulson shook his head. “Taken.”
“Turned into one of the cursed, more like.” Maria accepted her own glass from Volstagg, and the bottom of Natasha’s stomach dropped out. She did not look at Bruce, could sense Bruce deliberately not looking at her. They knew what it was to live with a curse. “Loki attacked with a crew of forty men, some familiar to us. You remember Parker the Spider and The Lady Watson.”
Natasha knew them, but not very well. Clint had been fond of the young privateer and his mistress. The two men had bonded over their time climbing about as topmen in the Navy. “What of them?”
“They were turned into nothing but mindless beasts. Tell me, how does a man who can’t even pick up a cutlass without concentrating turn some of the smartest people I know into empty vessels?” Fury asked.
As one, all five of the people in the room turned to look at Volstagg, who stood in the doorway to the kitchen with his arms loaded down with plates. He gave a mighty shrug. “They’re Draugr. Well, of a sort, sir, they are,” he said. “The dead ones are full Draugr. The live ones, not so much, but given enough time, they will be—full Draugr, that is.”
“And what,” Fury said, his voice crisp, “the devil is a Draugr?”
“I thought everybody knew what Draugr was,” Volstagg said, forehead gaining large furrows.
“You’ll have to forgive me if my knowledge of magic is a little limited, considering I didn’t believe it existed until I saw Banner here grow more than thrice his size and turn greener than a cabin boy in a hurricane!”
Coulson had pulled a small booklet from his pocket. “I know this one,” he said, flicking through the pages. “The Norse believe that the dead can walk again, sir.”
“Aye, and they’re vicious, too,” Volstagg said. “Big, hulking, nasty creatures that haunt the graves of good, honest folk. I’ve seen my countrymen avoid many a grave, sir.”
Fury gave the ex-viking a long look before he turned to Coulson. “You mean to tell me that Loki has turned my people into Norse ghosts?”
“Not ghosts. As far as we can tell, they’re not dead,” Coulson said. “And they’re quite solid.”
Natasha sucked in a slow breath and looked down at the table for a minute. Beside her, she felt Bruce do the same, which helped somewhat.
“They’re merely…not themselves,” Coulson said. “We recovered one of Loki’s original slaves that came back to his senses during the fight. He told us everything he knew.”
So the curse could be overcome, Natasha thought, and stored that information away.
“And when were you planning on sharing this with the rest of us?” Fury asked.
“Doing it now, sir.” Coulson, flicking through the pages, began to list details, and Natasha finally got the full story she had been trying to piece together. Tortuga had been attacked under the cover of darkness. Forty some-odd Draugr had scaled the harbor walls and had opened fire upon the guards patrolling there, taking them by such force that the city of Tortuga had been unable to rally. Following them had been the shade of Loki Laufeyson carrying a short staff that glowed blue on the end.
Bruce and Natasha exchanged a look.
“Loki moved through the men,” Maria said, speaking up for the first time in awhile. “That staff—he used it on the men. Everyone he touched turned and immediately fought his comrades as though he didn’t recognize them at all. Barton tried to stop it. He tried to put one of those salt arrows he’s been crafting through Loki’s eye socket.”
“And did it work?” Natasha asked.
“Went right through the bastard.”
There went that theory of Clint’s, Natasha thought, but she remained silent.
Coulson’s notes moved onto the interrogation of the ex-Draugr, who had been a fisherman in Kingston. Loki had recruited about thirty of them from a pub for what was supposed to be honest work, but outside the pub, he’d touched them with that staff and suddenly, the man had cared nothing about a wage, or his family. The man had been aware of losing sleep, and letting his body dwindle to nothingness from a lack of food and attention, but he simply hadn’t cared.
“He didn’t know if the orb on the staff had a name,” Coulson said, closing the notebook with a snap. He put it into an inner pocket of his frock coat, which had been specially tailored for him on a trip to the Colonies.
Bruce finally cleared his throat. “It does.”
“Pray, enlighten us,” Fury said.
“It’s called the Lyskilden, and it’s impossible that Loki could have found it because the last time we saw it, it was sinking to the depths of Davy Jones’ locker in the arms of Captain Obadiah Stane,” Natasha said.
“And it might just be the thing that cursed me.” Bruce paused. “And some others.”
As Natasha was one of those cursed, she appreciated being included.
Governor Nicholas Fury stared at the two of them for a long moment of silence. “I do believe,” he said in a tone that was so dry, it had no business being anywhere near the Caribbean, “the pair of you and Mr. Barton left out a few details about what really happened that night on the Ferrous.”