Now he halted in front of that terrible silent line, while his men seemed to shrink somewhat as they, too, pulled up. Then he faced Thorleif as boldly as if he had the army of Wessex behind him, and spoke his mind.
“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted in his great voice. “We can have no breaking of the king’s peace here, let me tell you. Set down those arms, and do your errand here as peaceful merchants, whereto will be no hindrance. But concerning the lifting of cattle which has gone on, I must have your leaders brought to Dorchester, there to answer for the same.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then the Danes broke into a great roar of laughter. Even Thorleif’s grim face had a smile on it, and he set his hand to his mouth, and stroked his long moustache as if hiding it, while he looked wonderingly at the angry man before him. But beside me Elfric stamped his foot with impatience, and muttered curses on the foolhardiness of the sheriff, which, indeed, I suppose no one understands to this day.
Some say that he took them for merchants, run wild indeed, but to be brought to soberness by authority. Others think that finding himself, as it were, in a wolf’s mouth, he was minded to carry it off with a high hand, seeing no other way out of the danger. But most think that he had such belief in his own power that he did indeed look to see these men bow to it, and lay down their arms then and there. But none will ever know, by reason of what was to come.
“Throw down your arms!” he commanded again, when the laughter ceased.
His voice shook with rage.
“Stay!” said Thorleif. “What is your authority?”
The question was put very courteously, if coldly, and it was common sense.
“I am the sheriff of Dorchester. Whence are you that you should defy the king’s officer?”
“Pardon,” said Thorleif. “It is only at this moment that we have learned that we have so great a man before us. As for your question, we are hungry Danes who are looking for victuals. It is our custom to go armed in a strange land, that we may protect our ships at the least.”
“Trouble not for your ships, for none will harm them,” Beaduheard said, seeming to be somewhat pacified by the quiet way of the chief. “Set down your arms, and render up yourself and the other ship captains, and the theft of the cattle and damage here shall be compounded for at Dorchester.”
Then Thorleif turned to his men and said:
“You hear what the sheriff says; what is the answer?”
That came in a crash and rattle of weapons on round shields that rang over the bay, and sent the staring cattle headlong from where they had been left at the wharf end, tail in air, down the beach. There was no doubting what that meant, and Beaduheard, brave man as he was, if foolish, recoiled. His men were already edging out of the wide space toward the homeward track, and he glanced at them and saw it.