As Etrand is a feudal monarchy, nobility forms the backbone of the country's military and administration. Traditionally, landed nobility made up the backbone of the Etrandish military elite, but in the last few centuries, they have been being overshadowed by mercenaries and unlanded retainers.
Traditionally, the Etrandish way was giving out land - and a locative title that indicated you being a man of power - in exchange for military service. These men were the King's vassals. The King's vassals could in turn grant land to their own men and so forth, creating a hierarchy of vassals having their own vassals.
Grand Counts are rulers of larger regions of Etrand, and they are always direct vassals of the King. Some of the more well-known dynasties of grand counts include:
Counts are rulers of smaller parcels of land, meaning that usually they are vassals of Grand Counts. Some of the more well-known dynasties of counts include:
Squires usually rule over single villages and/or own estates that include multitude of hamlets. As such, they are usually vassals of counts, or more rarely, of Grand Counts and the King himself. The name itself is a reference to how their attire is similar to that of a knight, due to the fact that can seldom afford the fanciness counts and grand counts can.
Most retainers are also called squires.
Unlanded nobility (retainers)
As expansion has largerly stopped after 274, and the colonization of the souther swamps is happening at an extremely slow pace - not to mention, it's being spearheaded by free peasants, yeomen, not noblemen and their serfs - Etrand ran out of land to distribute among would-be-vassals.
Coinciding with this was the rapid development of land, improvements in technology that brought better harvests - less starvation for serfs, more tax revenues for landowners -, cheaper weapons and armour. The increased in population also meant that labourers who would build and maintain houses would become cheaper. All of these contributed to the rise of a new class of hybrids between mercenary and nobility: the retainers.
While mercenaries are usually required to get their own weapons, work exclusively for money and don't work permanently for their hirers, retainers are granted honorary nobility, shelter, food, weapons and armour - and more often that not, also some annual payment, but less than that of mercs - for their military service. This is a big win-win situation for both sides: the retainers get free housing and food, gain an honorary title that guarantees being considered a nobleman rather than a commoner, while the man they become vassals of gains extra permanent soldiers at a cheaper price than temporary mercenaries.
Retainers are also called "squires" - the same name used for the lowest rank of nobleman, ones who own single villages or a few hamlets as estates - despite the lack of connection.
"Fake Retainers" or "Silver Knives"
A not-so-recent phenomenon is buying nobility - many of the richer merchants buy honorary nobility but forfeit the housing and food, along with buying their way out of the military service. Indeed, the buying and selling of nobility has become a rather lucrative business for the more financial-minded noblemen of Etrand. It has become a de facto standard for mixed noble-merchant marriages to grant titular nobility to the merchant, who is expected to bring a gigantic amount of dowry in return in case he or his son was (materlinearly) marrying a nobleman's daughter, less so when a merchant's daughter was being wed to a nobleman('s son), which still comes with the gift of nobility, but in exchange for a smaller dowry.
Sometimes, merchants who buy nobility but don't become part of their supposed overlord's armed retinue are called "fake retainers" or "silver knives", a term that is intented as a joke on them preferring knives over swords and maces, the weapons associated with "real retainers".