The traditional halfling homeland is now known as the Free Shires, a territory north of the Forest of Arden, completely surrounded by the founding of Southold in 1066. In fact, the land encompassed by the Shires spans a portion of the border between the Duchies of Hadlech and Dunador. The Shires have retained an autonomous socio-political structure, but have assumed an external relationship to the surrounding Kingdom much like that of any of the Duchies – there are halfling ambassadors in each Ducal court, and at least the surrounding Duchies accord the Shires a similar honor. While most of the other Duchies regard the halfling ambassador as something of an attaché to that of Hadlech, the courts of Dunador and Hadlech themselves accord full diplomatic rights and consideration to the Shires. When asked about the seemingly frictionless political interactions between the entities, kingdom representatives respond that the halflings have shown themselves to be mostly harmless and quite useful at times, and the Head Sheriff of the Shires replies, “Why would one knock ash into one’s own tea?”
In return for some minor taxes to Dunthrane, providing a token levy of troops in wartime, and patrolling to keep the realm free of bandits and marauding creatures, the Shires maintain their autonomous status. These rights devolve from the Treaty of Grandlegore, signed by King Athelstan himself in 1068 shortly after the country’s liberation from the Videssian occupation. This includes the right to try criminals within the Shires, though Shire law is very similar to that of the Southrons, largely following the tenets of the Code of Athelstan, if not as harsh in punishments. The Shires have few foreign relations problems to speak of, as commerce with the neighboring Southron duchies is excellent.
While politically largely independent (much like the Forest of Arden, but less insular), the Shires have been influenced greatly by the surrounding kingdom in terms of culture. The original halfling tongue is all but extinct, existing only as a curiosity for scholars. It is a matter of speculation whether the great range of subtlety through inflection accorded the language by master rogues (who have maintained an oral tradition concerning some of its historical uses) actually existed, as well as whether there is still a faction within halfling society which still practices its use. A number of human customs have bled into the Shires along with the Southron language, most notably market days and animosity toward traditional Southron foes.
The Shires total nine in number, each consisting of a heterogeneous mix of individuals and family units belonging to one of dozens of Families. There is a Head House or Family in each Shire, for which that Shire is named. However, this House may not be the most populous in town. The most influential member of that House acts as Sheriff, and is often addressed with the honorific ‘Ser,’ or to non-halflings, ‘Lord’. The Sheriff needn’t be the eldest Family member, but often is. The Sheriff’s duties are somewhat informal, since running or leading a Shire largely consists of setting guidelines for the quantity and proportion of crops (needed to keep the Shire self-sufficient), settling minor disputes, coordinating parties, etc.
The nine current Head Houses are considered somewhat elite, although every Family throughout the Shires is considered ‘noble’ in the eyes of the populous. The feudalism that reigns through the rest of Southold has been completely excluded here – there are no serfs, and most individuals conduct lives largely equivalent to that of a freeman. (Halflings outside the Shires all have freeman status, and the race as a whole has become an unwitting and unwilling touchstone for those of the Freeborn movement which opposes serfdom.) Families have a somewhat elastic rank or current influence relative to one another, partly based on genesis story and length of lineage, but greatly influenced by conduct. Status can be enhanced through consistent distinction or though exceptional deeds of individuals, or similarly degraded by prolonged underhandedness or isolated ignominious acts.
The Shire of Grandlegore is the intermittent meeting-place for the council of Houses, at which the Sheriff of each Shire meets to discuss matters of importance to the Shires as a whole. Ser Grandlegore acts as Head Sheriff, made necessary only for the sake of not having the Sheriffs (used to having people shut up and listen to them, if not necessarily obey them), talk over one another.
Family structure/lineage/history is very important to halflings. In accordance with the strong oral tradition that pervades the society, each family has a genesis story which recounts the origin of the Family, and is passed down (mostly without enhancement) through the generations. A Family generally originates due to an exceptionally notable experience or occurrence which calls a couple or group of individuals to cast off their former Familial bonds and create a new identity for themselves. This genesis can also occur simply due to discovering political/social/geographical leanings significantly distinct from those of one’s parent Families. The place of origin for a Family is called its Crib, most of which are located in or near current Shires. As halflings have gradually moved out and mingled with larger society, however, some Cribs are quite far-flung. For example, the Humpbachs’ Crib is in the eastern foothills of the Marston Peaks, where their antecedents took their name from the resemblance their burdened selves had to their camel mounts during a harrowing trade caravan into Hule. Once every two years, on the anniversary of its genesis, each Family celebrates Family Day. Every member who is able travels to their Crib for a week of celebration / family reunion. Family Day attendance is a serious obligation, and although no fault is found in members who fail to travel long distances or overcome other obligations to be there, much accolade, honor, and status can be gained both for an individual who manages such a feat and for a Family whose members have traveled furthest or who has the greatest number of attendees.
When a pair or set (threesomes are not uncommon) of halflings bond, or Unite, to form a family unit, they choose one Family to which they primarily belong. If of different families, often they join the Family of whichever mate has higher status within their own original Family, but this is not the preeminent reason for a choice – Family politics, Crib location, etc. are also factors. Those whose Family name changes as a result of this union may keep their original name as a modifier: if Leirion Humpbach married Ser Winkwillow’s son, she might be known as Leirion Winkwillow of Humpbach. Children of these unions are considered members of the Family their parents have chosen, although affiliations can change, most notably upon coming-of-age, but otherwise seemingly at whim. It can be exceedingly difficult for outsiders to understand the fluid and interwoven nature of Familial bonds in halfling society.
Members of each Family spread out through the Shires and beyond. Some Families have no particular trade or distinguishing characteristics, while others carry unmistakable features or are unusually predisposed towards, and noted for, brewing, agriculture, trade, diplomacy, mischief, magic, etc. House Winkwillow is known for its charisma and successful diplomacy, accounting for a number of the Ducal ambassadors. For instance, the noted Spymaster-Captain KinCade Winkwillow of the Silver Legion, although born out of Union to Sera Avarim by Cade Winkwillow, shows all the signs of competence at his father’s trade.
The Shires are known for their excellent beer, which rivals even Southold’s best Bywater Beer derived from the great fields of Anorien. While not known as a great agricultural exporter, many halflings are excellent gardeners, and even those who are not farmers by trade excel at producing excellent vegetables and such. Halfling potatoes, invariably seasoned with a secret combination of spices, are an excellent export, served at many pubs across Southold. The halflings are also known for their woodworking skills, and export many such items. The Shires are great importers of luxury goods such as fine cloths, art objects, and such.
The halflings regard their patron as Shinare, Mistress of Fate, and most halfling settlements have at least a small shrine dedicated to her. Other gods worshipped include Pholtus, Solonar, Mask, and Lathandra. However, the halflings--even their priests--are not known for their religious devotion or zealousness. Many halflings see religion as one of the many essential social duties as anything else, believing in turn that the gods have bigger things to worry about than the Shires.
Halflings of the Shires tend to fight with light armor no heavier than chainmail. They wield small versions of various swords--particularly shortswords--as well as shortbows, and slings. The latter is a particular specialty, as most halfling youths practice with their slings when growing up, and are particularly good shots.
There are several companies of halflings participating in the Third Cortalish War, some provided to Southold under the Treaty of Grandlegore, other volunteers who formed mercenary companies under the employ of the Crown. Halfling companies tend to be slingers, shortbowmen, or more rarely, spearmen.
The first halfling company deployed to the newly discovered continent of Aztaltica, Proudfoot’s Archers, is expanding halfling influence. Some halflings are curious about the isolated tribes of dark-skinned, wild halflings found in the jungles there, called the Little People.
Most halfling adventurers are fighters, rogues, rangers, clerics, or druids. A specialty particular to halflings is the Outrider, usually a skilled fighter, ranger, or rogue appointed to patrol the Shires and command levies in times of mobilization. The Outriders are normally loners among the halflings, little-known but greatly respected.