I recently had the honor of playing Kestrel Eliot’s wonderful “Goblin Market” with two dear friends of mine; a GM–less roleplaying game about a magical market happening on a solstice, when the veil between the mortal world and the fae realms is thinnest—about “getting to know your characters, meeting fae beings, and ultimately deciding where you belong”.
This post is a retelling of our session from the perspective of my character, Anna. If you find it at all intriguing, I wholeheartedly recommend grabbing all of Kestrel’s games—they’re delightful, and even just reading through them makes my imagination run wild.
Turns out when you put down a card asking “Do you ever long to be fae?” before three trans people, late at night, with lights dimmed, with everyone in character and with minds filled with images of stalls upon stalls of otherworldly trinkets, merchants and guests that seem both surreal and more real, more physical and present in the here and now than anything anywhere else—amid jolly assertions of “this is only about the game and this purely fictional scenario” and shivers of excitement and anticipation for hearing about the fair folk, what results is an absolutely magical way to spend an evening.
Dusk falls and the warm light of sunset soon gives way to dim moonlight; it’s still comfortably warm—it’s the summer solstice—but out of the sun, the shapes of the woods grow more vague, seem to shift silently with every movement we take; the veil between worlds is thinnest here. It’s finally time for us to step through to the Goblin Market.
I’ve never “travelled”, really. Sure, I left the old village behind as soon as I was independent enough to start afresh on my own elsewhere—anywhere else—but I’ve never gone out of my way to “visit places”. My world is this: my tiny (or, as others diplomatically call it, “cozy”) third–floor apartment, the two blocks it takes to get to the grocery store, a bus stop, and a few select places that bus, infrequently, takes me to. It’s a small enough world to fit entirely in my memory; I could retrace every crack in the sidewalk, every discarded piece of chewing gum so old it has fully petrified and turned into a geological feature.
It’s hard to feel like one can put down roots in a place that fits entirely in one’s head. I think to feel like you belong is to feel desired by your home; for it to want to keep you there, and for you to want to be kept around. There simply is no room for that in a home that fits in your pocket.
After a time, it starts to almost feel oppressive, in a way; the constant stream of unfamiliar faces—or worse, familiar ones that you find yourself incapable of connecting with—a constant reminder of being an outsider here, of some profound, fundamental disconnect between yourself and the spaces you inhabit. At times, late into the night, I find myself wanting nothing else but to run away again, to leave this all behind—unnoticed, just as I have been since coming here. I’d like a home that comes without an expiration date, one where I could stay without it turning into an overstay; one that takes effort to leave rather than to remain in.
But so far, I’ve been happy with the brief escapes to the Goblin Market every solstice. It always seems to come just in time for when I long for a breather most; for those moments of doubt where I miss my cousins and the life I left behind.
There’s a local coven of witches close by—I visit from time to time for fresh herbs and spices and polite, impersonal small talk about the weather. They’re nice; there’s a calm steadiness to them—every time I stop by, it seems like everything is right where it was last time, like I’d just left seconds ago. They ask if I’d like to join, at times, but I always decline; I wouldn’t fit in, I’d always feel like an outsider.
On solstices, I come by in the morning so that we can travel to the Market together. We cram ourselves into a rusty old Vanagon that runs half on gasoline and half on sheer determination and I half–doze off in the back seat to the gentle chorus of their chatter, jokes, and stories about (often surprisingly steamy) encounters with the fae.
By the time we arrive, my cousins are already there, waiting.
Elizabeth is just like the last time I saw her—warm and happy to see me again, but with a shade of carefully concealed dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept last night.
Grove is sitting on a fallen tree trunk, tracing shapes in the dirt with a stick; she’s clearly pretending to be politely disinterested and slightly bored, but the spark in her eyes betrays her barely–contained excitement. She looks up at me and for a split second that spark flickers as a sudden rush of different thoughts visibly runs through her mind (recognition, then relief, something that looks like concern; her eyes dart to the side—maybe some kind of internal conflict, indecision?—then, for a flash so brief it could’ve just been my imagination, a joy and liveliness I haven’t seen in her before) before—she blinks—settling back into the initial excitement.
Ah. She’s still concerned about Lou, I suppose. From her point of view, it was losing him that made me run away, and the Market only keeps that wound fresh. I haven’t told anyone else about the love we had—it was his own, fully informed decision to eat with the fae, to leave everyone behind; let the others celebrate the time we had with him, rather than sour his memory with the pain of loss. I’d like to think I’m over that—here I am, after all, ready and wanting to enjoy the Market free of worry or guilt—but I suppose the fact I’ve kept everyone at an arm’s length since then tells a different story.
It’s good to see them again.
The veil between worlds shimmers softly as we pass through, and instantly find ourselves surrounded by constellations of dancing, otherworldly lights, by music, singing, laughter, the clinking and clanking of coin, trinkets, shoes, and hooves. Even the witches fall quiet for a moment, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Goblin Market, before being greeted enthusiastically and ushered aside by a leprechaun, leaving me, Liz, and Grove browsing the stalls and displays together in quiet wonder.
It doesn’t take long for us to split up naturally as I fall behind, entranced by a display of magical jewelry. I always end up picking up a ring, bracelet, charm or pendant at the Market; I’m not drawn to the more intentionally magical items, like those used for divination or charms and hexes, but I find it comforting and reassuring to keep a small piece of the fae realm around my wrist or finger. Maybe it’s some form of coping with losing Lou; I should ask my therapist when I have the chance. I end up trading a dozen dreams to a lovely elf for a bracelet of silver moonlight that, when at the edge of my vision, seems to glow with an otherworldly, blue radiance. I exchange smiles and compliments with the elf and turn to leave, only to find my face at chest height with and my nose filled with the intoxicating scent of a striking, antlered fae, towering over the crowd.
Oh no. He’s hot. Shit.
It’s something more than just that, actually. Something about him seems more real and physical than everything around us; despite the dim half–light, I can see each hair of the dappled fur covering his hooved legs, the soft fuzz of the remnants of velvet on his antlers, every detail of his friendly, warm, dark irises. The noise and joyous chaos of the Market suddenly seem muffled, as if I’d had earplugs in this entire time, as if I’d been looking through a dirty and smudged camera lens. He says something that bypasses my ears entirely and I hear myself respond, too busy trying to hide how flushed I am to register my own words. He gestures towards a fire flickering at the edge of the Market, away from the commotion of the stalls and carts and tables and undulating crowds, surrounded by a circle of deerfolk. I tear my eyes off him, long enough to snap back to reality and hear him ask: “Would you sit with us?”
The deerfolk are as integral to the summer Markets as Summer itself. They’re secretive—which isn’t particularly odd for a fae, I suppose—but friendly and welcoming to a fault, always shifting between stalls and displays, helping ensure that the needs of all the guests are met, resolve any arguments, and keep human children from running off into the woods. In quieter moments, though, they seem to prefer to stay together, and it’s not common for an outsider to be invited among them. I feel honored.
As we approach the fire, I notice it’s not just the glow of the flames flickering and dancing across the trees; small lights dance around the circle and dart between the antlers of the deerfolk like fireflies. The fae welcome us with nods and smiles and shift around, making room for us to sit among them.
“We have a little game we play before Winter comes,” my companion explains as he points to the dancing lights, “to bid our secrets farewell and let them roam free.”
“Wait. What happens in winter?” I ask. I’ve never seen the deerfolk around for the winter Markets.
“I cannot hear what he says. The glow of moonlight. The crackling flames. My heart wants to leap out of my chest and roam these woods for the rest of my days,” he replies. …Huh? Before I can come up with a follow–up, the fae to my left hands me a piece of kindling and offers a hand. “Speak what weighs on you. Let go of it.”
Sure. In a way, that’s what I come here for every solstice. This could be nice.
I close my fingers around his, letting the magic of this touch that can only happen once a year fill me for a moment. I take a breath, feeling all the complexity, life, safety, danger, births and rebirths of these woods fill my nostrils.
“The words I spoke are no longer a part of me. This is not what I said. That part of me is gone, free to blossom in the fae woods.”, I whisper as I clutch the fae’s hand tighter and throw the branch into the fire. It instantly disappears in a burst of flame, leaving behind an ember that rises, glowing brighter and brighter, circles around my head, then darts off into the night sky. The deerfolk erupt in joyous cheering and throw a rain of smaller kindling into the fire; I look to my left, at the one holding my hand. He smiles warmly. I smile back, feeling as if my chest is suddenly lighter; as if it’s now inexplicably easier for me to breathe.
I notice an animal peek out of the woods, looking directly at me—some kind of small, elongated forest creature, with dappled fur, slender, impossibly long limbs, and a crown of many sets of antlers around its head. It bows its head in… greeting? acknowledgment?
I nod back, and by the time my eyes return to where I saw it, it’s gone. My partner grabs a piece of kindling of his own and prepares to speak—
By the time I exchange goodbyes and thanks with the deerfolk, the Market is quieter. As the witching hour—and the fae feast—draws nearer, children are ushered back home, escorted by those humans who don’t want to risk facing the temptation of the feast and the wilder parts of the night. Most wares and displays are being hurriedly packed away. The air is thick with anticipation.
I find myself by one particular display that sets up here every solstice, right next to the tables of fae food; the sole stand at this end of the Market ran by humans rather than fae. Grove is right there, completely absorbed in an excited conversation with a kelpie or selkie or some other kind of water spirit—I never quite learned to recognize them; I’m more of a mountain and forest person than a swimmer. Elizabeth is nowhere to be seen.
The display is unlike most other displays at the Goblin Market. It is not here to sell wares, offer entertainment and nourishment, or showcase artistic craft. It’s lined with diaries, letters, old, seemingly worthless trinkets, toys.
Those who eat of the fae feast cannot ever come back, and I’m told it’s exceedingly difficult for them to even visit Markets too close to their past lives. This display is here to celebrate those who manage to do so, and keep alive the memories of those who don’t. Throughout the night, most who visit this stall are just passers–by, idly reading through the letters to pass the time, sometimes reminiscing and exchanging gossip and anecdotes with its caretakers.
But sometimes, a fae walks by and recognition flashes in their eyes; the villagers rush to greet them, jumping with excitement, exchanging hugs and handshakes and cheers that echo across the entire Market. The celebrated has, unexpectedly, arrived in person at the celebration.
I’m captivated by the letters and diaries. I find myself daydreaming about what these people were like, what led them to leave everything behind, how strong their resolve must have been to be sure that their place was in the fae realm, that they belonged on this side of the veil. With the feast just a couple steps away from me, with only a magical barrier that’s about to fall between me and a bite that could change my life forever, there’s something fluttering in my stomach. A moth that gets to see a flame only once every solstice.
As I flip through another diary, a horn call shakes the trees and the Market falls silent. Everyone turns towards the tables next to me with hungry eyes; the barrier around them shimmers and brightens, glowing with a blinding otherworldly blue for a moment— and then vanishes completely.
I don’t remember putting the diary down or walking over. I’m standing before a thick wooden table covered entirely with carvings, words, stories, illustrations; I only realize I’ve been holding my breath once I get lightheaded. There’s a plate of pie in front of me; it smells like home. Not like my childhood home, or my tiny apartment—it smells like Home, like Belonging, like Safety and Warmth and Rest. I can see how crunchy and satisfying the crust is, how warm the filling.
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life.
The moth in my stomach flutters its wings wildly, yearning for the flame. A pressure grows in my ears, drowning out all sound.
I look up just in time to see Grove interlock her fingers with her fae companion’s as she raises something to her lips. I reach out my arm, open my mouth and draw in air to yell out—too quickly, I’d forgotten I was holding my breath; I choke on the inrush of air and find myself unable to make a sound. Grove and her friend disappear behind other fae and humans who rush to the table—and the last I see her is as she takes a bite and smiles, her eyes glowing with a warmth and joy I’d never seen before.
The pressure disappears, giving way to cheers, singing, yelling, and all other sounds of revelry. I don’t look back at the fae pie. I walk away from the table towards the entrance, where the witches are excitedly showing off new purchases to each other.
The Moth flutters in my stomach.