This is dedicated to those faithful readers who are patiently awaiting the next instalment of "Runaway".


Seal of Approval

'Dow!' the little voice lisped implacably.

A sigh gusted from the mother. 'O Pip,' she pleaded. 'Just be a good little lad and sit a minute more.'

'Is your head aching, sister?' Esmeralda Brandybuck asked her brother's wife.

'O,' Eglantine Took said, 'it's just that, with all the girls ill, I realise how much help they are with their little brother.'

'Dow!' the little one said again, trying to wrestle himself free.

'He gets into such mischief, you must watch him every second,' Eglantine sighed, but handed him to the outstretched arms of his aunt.

'Come, Pip, let us play "pony"!' Esmeralda said brightly.

'This is the way the ladies ride: nim nim nim nim nim nim nim.' He chortled as she bounced him gently upon her knees.

'This is the way the gentlehobbits ride: a trot, a trot, a trot, a trot.' The bounces grew more vigorous and he grinned widely, showing all six of his teeth.

'This is the way the tweens ride: a gallop, a gallop, a gallop, a gallop!' Esmeralda said. Her young nephew crowed with excitement. After the gallop ended, nephew and aunt stared into each other's eyes, breathless with anticipation.

'And this is the way the farmers ride...' Esmeralda said slowly, feeling the little body tense in her hands. She began to lean him 'way over to one side, then the other. 'Jiggety, jiggety, jiggety, jiggety...' As she brought him upright for the last time, she straightened her legs and he slid down as she chanted 'jog!' In the next breath, she called, 'Catch him, Merry!'

There was a grand chase with the giggling one toddling and dodging as fast as his fat little legs could carry him while Meriadoc and Merimas chased him, finally seizing him and lifting him high in the air between them.

'Very nice,' Eglantine murmured, rubbing at the ache that the ensuing shriek had done nothing to help.

'You need a nap,' Esmeralda said firmly. 'The lads will watch over him for a bit while you lie yourself down.'

'I couldn't—'came the faint protest.

'O yes you can, and you will!' Esmeralda said, and recognising the same Tookish stubbornness of her husband Paladin in her sister-in-love's tone, Eglantine gave in.

'You have to watch him—'she began.

'Every minute, yes, we know,' Berilac said. 'We'll take him for a little walk about the Hall and be back in time for tea.'

'Come 'long, Pip!' Meriadoc said as he and Merimas set the little one down again. He firmly took one little hand while the other Merry took Pip's other hand, and they set off together, the little one in his baby's gown taking two or three steps for each one of the bigger lads.

'We'll have a grand adventure!' Merimas said.

They walked quite a ways before the sturdy little legs grew tired and the little voice demanded, 'Up!'

For such a wee bit he was a heavy burden, and it wasn't long before the lads tired of carrying him, even taking turns.

'Here's Grandfather's study!' Meriadoc said suddenly. 'We can see what kind of sweetmeats he has in his desk today!' There was always a treat for a youngster who visited the Master of Buckland.

'He's not in,' Berilac said. 'He's watching the River!'

'D'you think we'll have a flood?' Merimas said, his eyes bright with excitement. 'D'you think they'll pile sandbags up against the very Hall as they did the last time it rained this much?'

'I hope not!' Berilac said. He was the most serious of the cousins, and he remembered riding out with his father after the last flood when Merimac and Saradoc were sent by Master Rorimac to assess damages. Meriadoc had been too young last year to ride with them and had not been impressed with his cousin's descriptions of damage and devastation, and Merimas had been stuck in the Hall running messages.

'Uncle Paladin says it's the most exciting visit he's ever had to the Hall,' Meriadoc said. 'He says it's much better than sitting around sipping brandy all the time.'

'Paladin has a hard time sitting still, like someone else I could mention,' Berilac said, setting a wriggling Pippin upon the floor again.

' 'weet?' the little one lisped, his eyes bright. He dove for the door, and the three cousins collided in their effort to catch him.

'No, Pip, not in Grandfather's study!' Meriadoc and Berilac said together, but Merimas was transfixed by the view outside the windows.

'Will you look at that!' he breathed, and the other Merry, having caught his little cousin's hand, dragged him protesting to the window and lifted him up.

'Look at the River, Pip,' he said, and Pippin stopped struggling. Through the sheeting rain, they could dimly see labouring hobbits on the bank. The pile of sandbags was as high as a hobbit's head, and the River was spilling over the lip. The beleaguered hobbits were wading knee-deep in water that had seeped through the emergency wall. Quick work sealed the gap and some hobbits turned to bracing the wall with another layer while others added another row of sandbags to the top.

'The Marish is flooded for certain,' Berilac said bleakly. 'The western bank is lower than ours.'

They stood at the window, watching the sandbag crew work, not noticing the passage of time. Merry didn't even notice when little Pip slipped down, didn't notice the toddler's absence until a little voice said ' 'weet!'

Turning round, he said, 'O no! Pip, what have you done now?' The others turned as well, with exclamations of dismay. The little one had pulled out every drawer in the great desk that he could budge. Thankfully some of the drawers were too heavy, but he'd managed to do quite a bit of damage, scattering the contents over the lush carpet.

Meriadoc made a game of sorting out the contents while Berilac put things in their proper places; having played in their grandfather's study often, they had seen drawers opened and remembered seeing inside. The tin of sweets was empty, of course, and little Pip smacked sticky lips.

'There,' Merry said, sitting back on his heels. 'This pile goes in the upper right, this one in the upper left, and these things…' he waved vaguely at a jumble of miscellany, 'I don't know where they go, so we'll just put them in grandfather's catch-all drawer.'

'Bottom left?' Merimas said helpfully, sweeping the pile into his shirt.

'You have the right of it.' Merry said. 'Is it teatime yet?' He picked up the "upper left" pile and Berilac took the "upper right" pile. Soon they had the objects neatly laid away.

A little voice said cheerily, 'Tea!'

'O, Pip, no!' Berilac exclaimed in dismay. 'He's drunk the inkwell!' Looking more closely, he added, 'Half of it, anyhow.'

Indeed, the little mouth opening in a crow of delight was black: gums, tongue, and all six teeth. He'd spilt remarkably little of the ink, which was some kind of mercy, Merry didn't know what kind. 'Is ink poison?' he asked, fear clutching his heart.

'No, thankfully,' Berilac said with a sigh of relief. 'Grandfather said with so many little ones about he doesn't dare use proper ink, and he frets that his papers will fade, but I'm so glad now that he's careful, aren't you?'

'An ounce of prevention,' Merry agreed, taking out his pocket-handkerchief to scrub at the little face, without much result.

Just then old Saradas entered the study, stopping short to see the boys. 'You know better than to play in the Master's study when he's not here,' he said severely.

'We were just watching the sandbaggers out the window,' Berilac said, but the old hobbit's glance went from the half-empty inkwell to the crowing toddler with his blackened mouth.

'Indeed,' Saradas said dryly. 'Well, I need the Master's seal to send off a message.' He swept the desktop with his eye. 'It should be atop the desk.' The boys looked over the desktop with him. No heavy ring, seal and signet of the Master of Buckland, was apparent.

'Perhaps he left it in the drawer,' Saradas mused aloud, and the boys exchanged uneasy glances. They'd have noticed if the seal had been amongst the scattered contents. 'Well,' he said at last, straightening up, 'perhaps he took it with him.' He gave the cousins a stern look. 'You may look out the window all you like,' he said, 'seeing as how this room has the best view of any, but don't touch anything!' He took another glance at the inky toddler, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth before he cleared his throat with a magnificent "harrumph" and stared at Pippin's minders again.

'Yes, sir!' they said smartly, and he nodded once more and left the study.

'The seal was on the desk,' Berilac said, dread in his voice.

'Are you sure?' Merimas demanded.

'I saw it as well,' Merry confirmed. He bent down to confront the toddler. 'Pippin,' he said. 'What did you do with the seal?'

' 'Weet!' Pippin said brightly.

'He ate it?' Berilac said in horror.

'Pippin, did you eat Grandfather's seal?' Merry demanded.

Pippin grinned, rubbing his little middle and saying, ' 'ummy!'

'Perhaps if we turned him upside down and shook him,' Merimas suggested.

'No, Mama says you never shake a baby,' Berilac said severely, though that is exactly what he felt like doing.

'There's naught for it but to...' Merry said slowly.

'It's apple tart for tea today, your favourite,' Merimas reminded him. 'D'you really want to confess and be put on water rations the rest of the day?'

'We could offer to change nappies,' Berilac said slowly. 'That's it! We'll just change his nappies for the next few days, until the seal makes its appearance again. Hopefully the flood will keep everyone too busy to notice until then.'

Meriadoc made a sound of disgust, but there really was no other option he could offer.

Eglantine was surprised and touched at the lads' generous offer to take over minding Pippin while her girls were down sick, but Esmeralda pressed her to take them up on it.

'Really, they've much more energy than we do,' she said. 'With three of them, they'll have at least one eye on the babe at all times.'

'You can say that again,' Berilac said under his breath.

The next three days were an ordeal. Keeping constant watch on a lively toddler is tiring enough, but when you cannot even hand him over to his mother when he's smelly... well, by the end of the third day all three of the boys were seriously considering having no babes of their own when they were grown hobbits.

The rain stopped midday on the second day. By morning of the third day after the disappearance of the seal, the river had crested and was beginning to go down. Exhausted, wet, dirty hobbits began to trickle into the Hall, and baths were in great demand. Old Rorimac laid himself down upon his bed still wet and muddy, foregoing the bath, and slept until morning of the next day.

The seal had still not appeared. The boys held a whispered, worried consultation. 'What if it's stuck?' Merimas said.

'Things are still going in and coming out,' Berilac said. 'At least it's not blocking the food going through.'

'But what'll we do?' Meriadoc said.

'I don't know,' Berilac answered glumly. Pippin crowed and banged his silver spoon upon the table.

'It's nice to see my boy all smiles,' Paladin said, entering to kiss his wife. 'He's managed not to come down with what's ailing the lasses, I take it?'

'No,' Eglantine said with a smile for her husband. She hadn't seen him at all for nearly a week as he'd been out helping with sandbags and riverbank patrols. 'He's been a bit fussy—' the three cousins, sitting further down the long table, stiffened, '—but perhaps he's getting another tooth.' She forbore from mentioning the ink, knowing her husband's temper, but surprisingly the lads relaxed only a little.

'He's been fussy,' Meriadoc whispered to Berilac.

'What was that, lad? Speak up! No secrets at breakfast!' Paladin said severely.

'We were talking about Pip being fussy,' Merry said bravely. 'Perhaps he needs his nappie changed.'

Eglantine checked and shook her head. 'No,' she said, 'not quite yet.' She turned to her husband. 'The lads have been so helpful with Pearl down ill,' she said. 'They've taken over watching Pippin for me. I've had one of my headaches, and…'

'One of your headaches?' Paladin said. 'Do you want to retire, my dear? Shall I bring your breakfast to you?'

'O no!' his wife said brightly. 'It has quite gone. I'm feeling much better, thanks to the lads. They've taken as much care of the babe as I would myself.'

'Well now, that's a fine thing to hear!' Paladin said, beaming at the boys.

Rorimac came in then, freshly bathed, his face showing no remaining stress from the long battle against the River. 'Well, well, well,' he said. 'Some odd things've been happening round here, let me tell you!'

'What is it, Father?' Saradoc said, rising in respect until the Master was seated.

'My seal!' the old hobbit said. The lads stiffened again and looked at each other with dread.

'Yes, I tried to find your seal whilst you were out prowling the riverbanks,' Saradas said. 'I thought you'd taken it with you.'

'You'll never guess where it was,' Rorimac said. 'I don't know how it could have got there!'

'Where?' Saradas said, glancing at the petrified young hobbits.

'In the inkwell!' Rorimac guffawed. 'I went to write a note this morning, and when I stuck the quill into the ink something rattled. "Ink doesn't rattle," I said to myself, I said, and sure enough, I fished around a bit with the quill and fished out—' he pulled his hand from his pocket with a flourish '—this!'

The seal, still showing some signs of ink, resided once more on the Master's hand. 'Took a bit of scrubbing,' he muttered. 'Couldn't get it all off as it was. And I was worried that the ink isn't permanent!'

Pippin grinned a wide, six-toothed grin and made a triumphant noise.

'O Merry, dear,' Eglantine said. Merimas and Meriadoc looked up. 'I do believe... yes, his nappie does need a change now.'

'Yes, Auntie,' Merry said bravely. Berilac and the two Merrys took the toddler from his high seat. 'C'mon, Pip.'

'Meh!' Pippin crowed.

'Well listen to that!' Paladin said. 'He's learned to say your name, Nephew! That's quite a compliment!'

'Indeed, Uncle,' Merry said. He smiled down at Pippin, who hadn't swallowed the Master's seal after all. 'I'm quite pleased.'