The Haradrims rode single file on their homeward road, a dark shadow across the featureless plain before the White City ere the morning was young. They came out of the desert twenty in total, but now returning one less in number, for Aragorn would not return with them. He now stood at the gate of the White City, gazing across the plain at the retreating backs of the Haradrims. Beside him stood an old man, garbed in grey, travel-worn cloak and a pointy, blue hat.
The two stood in silence under the tender morning light, watching the riders of Harad to fade away at the horizon. At last the old man spoke, an amused and merry tinkle in his voice, "It seems you begrudge my snatching you away on the eve of your glory again."
Aragorn shook his head and answered, his voice devoid of levity, "I bear you nothing but gratitude for sending me words from north and reminding me of my duties. I am merely sad at the farewells, Gandalf."
"I understand, child." The old man said kindly. "It seems these people do love you with all sincerity."
There was something in the old wizard's voice that made Aragorn turn and speak sharply, "You speak as if you doubt them."
The old wizard said dryly, "Excuse an old man for his stubborn beliefs, my child. I come to know those people as enemies, and I still see them as enemies."
"Why?" Aragorn pressed.
"The bond of servitude to the Dark Lord is not so easily broken." Gandalf said gravely. "My heart tells me when the final confrontation comes, the Haradrims will be allied with Mordor as they have always done, against the free people of Middle-earth."
Aragorn turned his head and said evenly, "I have not such wisdom as yours, Gandalf, and I can not see schemes of that scale. I must always deal with the more pressing human concerns."
"Yet you are the heir of kings," The old wizard admonished, "A ruler of men. A king should always know to look at the grander design."
"Yet should not a king also look to his subjects and perceive them for the grieving and rejoicing beings that they are rather than pieces in some larger-than-life game?" Aragorn's reply came swift and with a rare acridity.
Gandalf laughed long and soft, saying at last, "Your temper and tongue grow sharper every time I see you, boy."
Aragorn bowed his head and said evenly, "My apologies, Gandalf."
"Nay! You speak true." Gandalf said. "Indeed, we the immortal wise look on the world and perceive only a great tapestry; we never choose to see the individuals that weave the tapestry and their concerns. I have loved few in this world; even you, my boy, I come to cherish only because you hold key to the survival and renewal of Middle-earth."
"The wise are burdened with the fate of the world. It is no injustice that they cannot see to the trivial concerns of every individual. I spoke foolishly, Gandalf; forgive me." Aragorn said.
Again the old wizard shook his head, "Nay! I would never call your concerns and accomplishments trivial, for without those human concerns there is no difference between Sauron and the White Council. We are here to aid, not to rule, though it is always difficult for us to not look down to the world and manipulate it like a game master before his chessboard. It gladdens my heart, child, to see you so learned with the indifferent wisdom of the immortals and yet still full of human compassion."
"You speak too highly of me, old friend." Aragorn murmured. "All my actions are forced from me by necessity."
The wizard laughed, and said in a clear voice, "Then we should all be thankful that your necessity includes so little of self."
At this Aragorn could only smile wryly.
The two spoke no more. Slowly and surely they began to tread across plain northward. At the bank of the great Anduin, Aragorn turned and cast one last look southward, to the White City, and to the desert with its City of A Thousand Tents, Memphessa.
Then turning, he left both Gondor and Harad and would not return for many years.
AN: And it is done! My most sincere thanks to everyone who reviewed, and special thanks to Viggomaniac, who was kind enough to add my story to her esteemed C2. I am infinitely grateful for everything. I hope everyone who was alongside with me on this little ride had as much fun as I did. Until next time!