Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Pelistes, the Defender of Cordova

No sooner had Tarik defeated the Christian army on the fatal field of Sidonia than he sent out detachments of horsemen in all directions, hoping to win the leading cities of Spain before the people should recover from their terror. One of these detachments, composed of seven hundred horse, was sent against Cordova, an ancient city which was to become the capital of Moslem Spain. This force was led by a brave soldier named Magued, a Roman or Greek by birth, who had been taken prisoner when a child and reared in the Arab faith. He now ranked next to Tarik in the arts and stratagems of war, and as a horseman and warrior was the model and admiration of his followers.

Among the Christian leaders who had fled from the field of the Guadalete was an old and valiant Gothic noble, Pelistes by name, who had fought in the battle front until his son sank in death and most of his followers had fallen around him. Then, with the small band left him, he rode in all haste to Cordova, which he hoped to hold as a stronghold of the Goths. But he found himself almost alone in the town, most of whose inhabitants had fled with their valuables, so that, including the invalids and old soldiers found there, he had but four hundred men with whom to defend the city.

A river ran south of the city and formed one of its defences. To its banks came Magued,—led, say some of the chronicles, by the traitor, Count Julian,—and encamped in a forest of pines. He sent heralds to the town, demanding its surrender, and threatening its defenders with death if they resisted. But Pelistes defied him to do his worst.

What Magued might have found difficult to do by force he accomplished by stratagem. A shepherd whom he had captured told him of the weakness of the garrison, and acquainted him with a method by which the city might be entered. Forcing the rustic to act as guide, Magued crossed the river on a stormy night, swimming the stream with his horses, each cavalier having a footman mounted behind him. By the time they reached the opposite shore the rain had changed to hail, whose loud pattering drowned the noise of the horses' hoofs as the assailants rode to a weak place in the wall of which the shepherd had told them. Here the battlements were broken and part of the wall had fallen, and near by grew a fig-tree whose branches stretched towards the breach. Up this climbed a nimble soldier, and by hard effort reached the broken wall. He had taken with him Magued's turban, whose long folds of linen were unfolded and let down as a rope, by whose aid others soon climbed to the summit. The storm had caused the sentries to leave their posts, and this part of the wall was left unguarded.

In a short time a considerable number of the assailants had gained the top of the wall. Leaping from the parapet, they entered the city and ran to the nearest gate, which they flung open to Magued and his force. The city was theirs; the alarm was taken too late, and all who resisted were cut down. By day-dawn Cordova was lost to Spain with the exception of the church of St. George, a large and strong edifice, in which Pelistes had taken refuge with the remnant of his men. Here he found an ample supply of food and obtained water from some secret source, so that he was enabled to hold out against the enemy.

For three long months the brave garrison defied its foes, though Magued made every effort to take the church. How they obtained water was what most puzzled him, but he finally discovered the secret through the aid of a negro whom the Christians had captured and who escaped from their hands. The prisoner had learned during his captivity that the church communicated by an underground channel with a spring somewhere without. This was sought for with diligence and at length found, whereupon the water supply of the garrison was cut off at its source, and a new summons to surrender was made.

There are two stories of what afterwards took place. One is that the garrison refused to surrender, and that Magued, deeply exasperated, ordered the church to be set on fire, most of its defenders perishing in the flames. The other story is a far more romantic one, and perhaps as likely to be true. This tells us that Pelistes, weary of long waiting for assistance from without, determined to leave the church in search of aid, promising, in case of failure, to return and die with his friends.

Mounted on the good steed that he had kept alive in the church, and armed with lance, sword, and shield, the valiant warrior set forth before the dawn, and rode through the silent streets, unseen by sentinel or early wayfarer. The vision of a Christian knight on horseback was not likely to attract much attention, as there were many renegade Christians with the Moors, brought thither in the train of Count Julian. Therefore, when the armed warrior presented himself at a gate of the city just as a foraging party was entering, he rode forth unnoticed in the confusion and galloped briskly away towards the neighboring mountains.

Having reached there he stopped to rest, but to his alarm he noticed a horseman in hot pursuit upon his trail. Spurring his steed onward, Pelistes now made his way into the rough intricacies of the mountain paths; but, unluckily, as he was passing along the edge of a declivity, his horse stumbled and rolled down into the ravine below, so bruising and cutting him in the fall that, when he struggled to his feet, his face was covered with blood.

While he was in this condition the pursuer rode up. It proved to be Magued himself, who had seen him leave the city and had followed in haste. To his sharp summons for surrender the good knight responded by drawing his sword, and, wounded and bleeding as he was, put himself in posture for defence.

The fight that followed was as fierce as some of those told of King Arthur's knights. Long and sturdily the two champions fought, foot to foot, sword to scimitar, until their shields and armor were rent and hacked and the ground was red with their blood. Never had those hills seen so furious a fight by so well-matched champions, and during their breathing spells the two knights gazed upon each other with wonder and admiration. Magued had never met so able an antagonist before, nor Pelistes encountered so skilfully wielded a blade.

But the Gothic warrior had been hurt by his fall. This gave Magued the advantage, and he sought to take his noble adversary alive. Finally, weak from loss of blood, the gallant Goth gave a last blow and fell prostrate. In a moment Magued's point was at his throat, and he was bidden to ask for his life or die. No answer came. Unlacing the helmet of the fallen knight, Magued found him insensible. As he debated with himself how he would get the captive of his sword to the city, a group of Moorish cavaliers rode up and gazed with astonishment on the marks of the terrible fight. The Christian knight was placed by them on a spare horse and carried to Cordova's streets.

As the train passed the beleaguered church its garrison, seeing their late leader a captive in Moorish hands, sallied fiercely out to his rescue, and for some minutes the street rang sharply with the sounds of war. But numbers gathered to the defence, the assailants were driven back, and the church was entered by their foes, the clash of arms resounding within its sacred precincts. In the end most of the garrison were killed and the rest made prisoners.

The wounded knight was tenderly cared for by his captor, soon regaining his senses, and in time recovering his health. Magued, who had come to esteem him highly, celebrated his return to health by a magnificent banquet, at which every honor was done the noble knight. The Arabs knew well how to reward valor, even in a foe.

In the midst of the banquet Pelistes spoke of a noble Christian knight he once had known, his brother in arms and the cherished friend of his heart, one whom he had most admired and loved of all the Gothic host,—his old and dear comrade, Count Julian.

"He is here!" cried some of the Arabs, enthusiastically, pointing to a knight who had recently entered. "Here is your old friend and comrade, Count Julian."

"That Julian!" cried Pelistes, in tones of scorn; "that traitor and renegade my friend and comrade! No, no; this is not Julian, but a fiend from hell who has entered his body to bring him dishonor and ruin."

Turning scornfully away be strode proudly from the room, leaving the traitor knight, overwhelmed with shame and confusion, the centre of a circle of scornful looks, for the Arabs loved not the traitor, however they might have profited by his treason.

The fate of Pelistes, as given in the Arab chronicles, was a tragic one. Magued, who had never before met his equal at sword play, proposed to send him to Damascus, thinking that so brave a man would be a fitting present to the caliph and a living testimony to his own knightly prowess. But others valued the prize of valor as well as Magued, Tarik demanding that the valiant prisoner should be delivered to him, and Musa afterwards claiming possession. The controversy ended in a manner suitable to the temper of the times, Magued slaying the captive with his own hand rather than deliver to others the prize of his sword and shield.