It was on Saturday, the eve of the Sunday of Palms (says a worthy and loyal chronicler of the time), that the most Catholic monarch departed with his army to render service to Heaven and make war upon the Moors.* Heavy rains had swelled all the streams and rendered the roads deep and difficult. The king, therefore, divided his host into two bodies. In one he put all the artillery, guarded by a strong body of horse, and commanded by the master of Alcantara and Martin Alonso, senior of Montemayor. This division was to proceed by the road through the valleys, where pasturage abounded for the oxen which drew the ordnance.
*Pulgar, Cronica de los Reyes Catholicos.
The main body of the army was led by the king in person. It was divided into numerous battalions, each commanded by some distinguished cavalier. The king took the rough and perilous road of the mountains, and few mountains are more rugged and difficult than those of Andalusia. The roads are mere mule-paths straggling amidst rocks and along the verge of precipices, clambering vast craggy heights, or descending into frightful chasms and ravines, with scanty and uncertain foothold for either man or steed. Four thousand pioneers were sent in advance, under the alcayde de los Donceles, to conquer in some degree the asperities of the road. Some had pickaxes and crowbars to break the rocks, others had implements to construct bridges over the mountain-torrents, while it was the duty of others to lay stepping-stones in the smaller streams. As the country was inhabited by fierce Moorish mountaineers, Don Diego de Castrillo was despatched with a body of horse and foot to take possession of the heights and passes. Notwithstanding every precaution, the royal army suffered excessively on its march. At one time there was no place to encamp for five leagues of the most toilsome and mountainous country, and many of the beasts of burden sank down and perished on the road.
It was with the greatest joy, therefore, that the royal army emerged from these stern and frightful defiles, and came to where they looked down upon the vega of Velez Malaga. The region before them was one of the most delectable to the eye that ever was ravaged by an army. Sheltered from every rude blast by a screen of mountains, and sloping and expanding to the south, this lovely valley was quickened by the most generous sunshine, watered by the silver meanderings of the Velez, and refreshed by cooling breezes from the Mediterranean. The sloping hills were covered with vineyards and olive trees; the distant fields waved with grain or were verdant with pasturage; while round the city were delightful gardens, the favorite retreats of the Moors, where their white pavilions gleamed among groves of oranges, citrons, and pomegranates, and were surrounded by stately palms-- those plants of southern growth bespeaking a generous climate and a cloudless sky.
In the upper part of this delightful valley the city of Velez Malaga reared its warrior battlements in stern contrast to the landscape. It was built on the declivity of a steep and insulated hill, and strongly fortified by walls and towers. The crest of the hill rose high above the town into a mere crag, inaccessible on every other side, and crowned by a powerful castle, which domineered over the surrounding country. Two suburbs swept down into the valley from the skirts of the town, and were defended by bulwarks and deep ditches. The vast ranges of gray mountains, often capped with clouds, which rose to the north, were inhabited by a hardy and warlike race, whose strong fortresses of Comares, Canillas, Competa, and Benamargosa frowned down from cragged heights.
When the Christian host arrived in sight of this valley, a squadron was hovering on the smooth sea before it displaying the banner of Castile. This was commanded by the count of Trevento, and consisted of four armed galleys, convoying a number of caravels laden with supplies for the army.
After surveying the ground, King Ferdinand encamped on the side of a mountain which advanced close to the city, and was the last of a rugged sierra, or chain of heights, that extended quite to Granada. On the summit of this mountain, and overlooking the camp, was a Moorish town, powerfully fortified, called Bentomiz, considered capable of yielding great assistance to Velez Malaga. Several of the generals remonstrated with the king for choosing a post so exposed to assaults from the mountaineers, but he replied that he should thus cut off all communication between Bentomiz and the city, and that, as to the danger, his soldiers must keep the more vigilant guard against surprise.
King Ferdinand rode about, attended by several cavaliers and a small number of cuirassiers, appointing the various stations of the camp. Having directed a body of foot-soldiers to possess themselves, as an advanced guard, of an important height which overlooked the city, he retired to a tent to take refreshment. While at table he was startled by a sudden uproar, and, looking forth, beheld his soldiers flying before a superior force of the enemy. The king had on no other armor but a cuirass: seizing a lance, however, he sprang upon his horse and galloped to protect the fugitives, followed by his handful of knights and cuirassiers. When the soldiers saw the king hastening to their aid, they turned upon their pursuers. Ferdinand in his eagerness threw himself into the midst of the foe. One of his grooms was killed beside him, but before the Moor who slew him could escape the king transfixed him with his lance. He then sought to draw his sword, which hung at his saddle-bow, but in vain. Never had he been exposed to such peril; he was surrounded by the enemy without a weapon wherewith to defend himself.