The peoples in Paksenarrion's world sort into "humans" and "Elder Folk."
Elves in Paksenarrion's world are one of the Elder Races: they believe they are part of the First Song of the Singer, the Eldest of the Elder. The Earthfolk (dwarves and gnomes) disagree, but don't bother to argue. In their own tongue, elves are the Sinyi, the Sung. Most are tall (the average elf is taller than the average human, though there's overlap.) From the human perspective, there are multiple contradictions: elves loathe war and claim that their innate love of harmony makes conflict more painful to them--and yet they can be touchy, easy to offend, and even quarrelsome. Elven grudges last millenia...a fact that comes into play in the second book of this series in particular. In the immediate area of the first and part of the second book, the ranking elf is Flessinathlin, the Lady of the Ladysforest, referred to as the Lady. Kieri, King of Lyonya, is her grandson through her daughter.
The most important of the elvish powers, to elves themselves, is the taig sense--the ability to sense and communicate with the "consciousness" of all living things. This is believed to result from their being part of the First Song, in which they still participate, and they can "sing the taig awake.". Next in importance, and related, is the ability to heal the taig, and its components. Elves can manipulate both reality and the perception of reality by humans; time and space are different for them.
KUAKNOM, IYNISIN, DARK COUSINS
Of the same blood as Elves, but estranged from them, are the iynisin, the "unsingers" or kuaknom, "tree-haters." According to legend, when the first Kuakgan sang praise to the First Tree and gained its attention, some of the elves were angered and turned against the green world--and toward destruction and evil. They are creatures of Gitres the Un-maker and Nayda the Un-namer; they strive to waste, ruin, destroy, out of hatred for a creation that did not continue to respect them as eldest of elders. In appearance, they are much like elves and can be mistaken for them. They have all the elven magic but use it only to curse and destroy. They cursed Gird (and none of his issue lived, as they said) and would have killed the first paladins of Gird, Seri and Aris, if true elves had not come to their aid. They are implacable enemies of true elves, despise humans as vermin, and delight in creating dissension and havoc. Early on, they created orcs to prove their ability to create life--but warped, as they insist is due a ruined world. They may have created gibbas and hools, and the great white wolves Paksenarrion met in Oath of Gold, but this is not known for certain.
They prefer to dwell in stone--nedross stone, by preferences--and loathe Earthfolk as much as they do their elven cousins. True elves in Paksenarrion's day do not like to talk about the iynisin--would like to ignore their existence. This has made it easier for iynisin to pass as true elves.
Elves and humans can interbreed, and their children are fertile. Millenia of human/elf interactions have produced a population of part-elves that range mostly from 3/4 elf, 1/4 human to nearly all human with a touch of elven. The degree to which elven qualities and talents emerge in these part-elves depends on the amount of elven blood. Taig sense, for instance, is very rare if the elven component falls below 25%. Physically, part-elves may look entirely human or may show some elven characteristics (including, for those over half-elf, "silver blood", the characteristic sparkle in the blood of the full elf.) Some part-elves are not aware of their elven component.
How do humans feel about part-elves? In Lyonya, part-elves are common and create no interest. In neighboring lands, they're viewed variously, depending on how they present themselves. Especially attractive people may be accused of being part-elf and using magic to create that attraction. How do elves feel about part-elves? It depends on their parentage on both sides. Elves are attractive to most humans even without using magic on them, and some elves are strongly attracted to young, pretty humans. They feel that young humans have a freshness that, by its very brevity, is more beautiful. And some elves happily mate with human after human (usually only one at a time) producing (over the centuries) many, many part-elf children.
This is a source of controversy. Elven parents produce few children, at long intervals, and spend much effort on each child's rearing. Unattached elves who start playing with humans, taking them up as they reach early adulthood, starting families with them, and then leaving them when the human partner gets wrinkly or otherwise unattractive, are seen as self-indulgent, irresponsible, and even dangerous to other elves who may someday face human resentment.
Part-elves themselves regard their heritage variously. Some yearn to be full-elves--try to enlarge whatever elven powers they have, ape elven styles of dress, learn the language, hang out with elves whenever they get the chance. This is easier to do with greater amounts of elven blood; a few with minimal amounts of human in them are even accepted by most elves as "real" elves. Others try to emphasize their human heritage, make themselves fit in as "real" humans. This is easy to do for those with little elven blood and sometimes the elven influence is forgotten in a family, only to crop out later when someone marries a part-elf down the line and the baby turns out to have taig-sense. Many half-elves find a place on the border between elf and human, of value to both peoples for their knowledge of both.
Kieri Phelan, now king, is half-elven: his father is part Old Human and part magelord. His mother was the Lady's daughter, giving him royal blood on that side. His elven powers, almost destroyed by abusive kidnappers, have now returned and he is learning to use them. But his taig sense is that of a half-elf...and to fix the ability in his children, he should marry a part-elf or full elf. He is not able to get past the sheer age of the few elven women his grandmother-elf introduces--he realizes that no matter how long he lives, he will always be as a child to the full elves in Lyonya.
Dwarves, in fantasy and folklore, have traditionally been shown as tribal, with personal loyalties outweighing any respect for law. I chose to go with that tradition...the dwarves are "Germanic" in the sense of F.S. Lear's book, Treason in Roman and Germanic Law. They're tribal, with loyalties to their tribe and their tribe's chosen leader. They resist outside pressures to conform, to submit to others' laws, rules, even suggestions...as when, in Divided Allegiance, the dwarf Balkon told Paks more about what they suspected of her ordeal with the iynisin than the Marshals and paladin wanted him to.
Dwarves refuse to believe that elves are the "real" Elders, and consider that when Sertig hammered out the world on his anvil, they were created first. Rock before trees, they say, and surely they, the rockfolk, came before elves, who are part of the "fur" on the world. They are part of the bones of the earth. Their citadels are below-ground, in "dross" rock (literally, "courageous rock"--rock with the strength to be delved and made into their palaces and warrens.) They are masters of carving rock, building with rock, and also working with metals.
Gnomes contrast with dwarves: they are strictly legal (and very legalistic.) They believe the creator of the world set out the laws, which only they fully grasp and rigidly follow; they admit that they and dwarves might have come into the world at the same time, but (oddly like elves) they believe they sprang from the utterance of their deity, the Law itself: law requires someone to obey it, so as the law was spoken, they came into being. (Elves, as mentioned earlier, believe the First Singer sang them into being.)
Gnomes are similar to dwarves in housing their citadels underground, and share the innate ability to sense rock (dross or nedross) and work rock and jewels, but their preferences, attitudes, and behavior are very different. Unlike the noisy, exuberant, colorful, and often quarrelsome dwarves, gnomes are orderly, quiet, disciplined, serious: very Roman traits, and not only in giving allegiance to a system of law. If gnomes have a sense of humor, it's impenetrable to humans: nothing is funny, and they never have a silly moment.
While dwarves are delighted if they can put something over on a human, gnomes believe in strict honesty and tit for tat...they never give freely, and they abhor being in debt. The gnomes who "owe" Paks for their rescue from the robbers' lair, also in Divided Allegiance, still have a debt to pay (as they think) and at some point they will erupt into the story to pay it. In their own way. Her losing the iron ring they gave her is a small impediment (though it may loom larger in their mind than it would in hers if she thought of it) but a debt is a debt and must be paid.
Dwarves sometimes have real friendships with specific elves (their friendships are never group-wide, but person-by-person) but gnomes do not. Gnomes make no friends outside their own species, if indeed they have what we would call friends among gnomes. "Every person has a place."
And yet...if you are facing impossible odds, and want staunch fighters around you--gnomes are among the best. Gird learned about serious warfare from them, in Surrender None. Their discipline and insistence on the virtues of a rule of law helped Gird devise the Code and run a successful military campaign. Without the gnomes, Gird's uprising would have failed, just another peasant rebellion put down by those with more resources.
An incident in Surrender None and the story "Judgment" (set in an unnamed area of the north before the magelord invasionand published first in Masters of Fantasy), suggest a strange relationship between dragons and Earthfolk. This may or may not show up in the current group of books.
"OLD HUMANS" (term used by elves for the humans living north of the Dwarfmounts when the elves moved north.)
The indigenous humans living north of the Dwarfmounts have no defined origin, but the Elder Races are sure they were not original to creation. These people were relatively few, and lived in closely related groups--some nomadic, some semi-nomadic, and some settled. Settlements, where they existed, were small--a few dwellings, a "bone-house" for ancestors' bones, a little cleared ground for crops. The "bone-house" was the commonest structure (since even the nomadic groups had a traditional bone house somewhere. Pottery and weaving (on a hip-loom) were known, but metallurgy was not--although a very few had metal knife or ax, most used stone tools. Their crops were native plants sown and tended either in small fields/gardens, or multiplied where such plants grew naturally and protected from wildlife. In Lyonya (or what became Lyonya) the elves placed no barriers on old human settlements, because they did not trouble the taig (and appeared to have some primitive taig sense.) Nowhere in the north did the old humans develop large political entities or government. They believed in Alyanya (earth mother, lady of flowers), a god of rain, and a host of lesser powers associated with specific places: springs, caves, groves of trees, etc. They considered giving the greatest virtue, and a sign of strength: the person who gave must have--and the person who received was of lower consideration than the one who gave. Blood was the most potent form of giving, because blood is life to people (as water is life to plants.) Of their own, they had certain magic (powerful but limited in extent) that survived to the present (the time of these books.)
Magelords/mageborn came from Old Aare, fleeing some disaster and settling first in Aarenis. As their numbers grew, they pushed north of the Dwarfmounts where they met, misunderstood, and conquered the Old Humans. By the time they left Old Aare, the magelords had a large population and an advanced civilization with all that entails of social, political, and economic organization. They had colonized Aarenis before fleeing Old Aare's final catastrophe, and set up familiar societies (including the fortified cities of Cortes Immer, Cortes Cilwan, Cortes Vonja) at least a century before Old Aare fell.
Magelords had inherent, innate magical ability: though different from that of elves, it could accomplish some of the same ends, and was obviously powerful and enabled them to bypass technological/scientific approaches to solving common problems for a long time. By magic they could cut stone, move the blocks into place, and build without the need for tools and handwork. They did however have metallurgy; they made (by regular work, not magery) metal tools, weapons, jewelry, pots, and other objects; they knew ores and mining, refining and working gold, silver, iron, copper, tin. Their magic was much better at manipulating inanimate objects than living ones, however: true healing was the rarest of their talents. They had an intellectual understanding of living things, no true taig sense. They valued power, strength--especially strength in magery. This led them to misunderstand the Old Humans--they thought being offered food was proof that the Old Humans regarded them as natural rulers, and were offering submission (whereas, being offered food was a test--the equal offered food back; the dominant insisted on giving; only the weak took without giving.) Numerous and well-armed, accustomed to working in large groups and ruling underlings, the magelords easily conquered the Old Humans and forced them into serfdom...except in Lyonya, where the elves prevented that. Over time, magelords away from Old Aare lost their magery. Fearing this loss, some turned to alliance with evil (especially Liart, the Bloodlord) to hold onto it. Others adapted. By Gird's day, many of the magelords had little or no magic left; almost all who did fled to the far west, to Kolobia. By Paksenarrion's day, almost none had any.
Across the eastern ocean, Seafolk had lived as farmers and fishers, a few of them trading across the ocean to Old Aare, Aarenis, and Prealíth. They were held to a strip of land along the coast, as a range of mountains inland was claimed by a tribe of dwarves. When Old Aare fell, some magelords took ship to the east and settled in Seafolk lands, eventually dominating them and driving many of them away. These Seafolk then turned west, some of them settling on the north bank of the Honnorgat, where they became, in time, the two realms of Pargun and Kostandan. River, coastal, and oceanic trade is still part of their society; they travel overland only as far as a navigable stream.
The northern steppes are home to the horse nomads, tribal people with their own set of deities: Guthlac (Lord of the Hunt), the Mare of Plenty (roughly equivalent to Alyanya, but considered as a dun mare), the Windsteed (sired the Mare of Plenty's foals, who became the horses the nomads herd.) Children undergo a trial of strength and courage before they are accepted as adults: they must go with three horses on a ritual hunt and vision quest. They know (but will not tell) where paladins' horses come from. They take toll of travelers they find and sometimes kill them.