Long before there ever was a Maid Marian or a Robin Hood, Matilda Fitzwalter lived with her mother and father in a comfortable little manor. But her father fell afoul of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and his enforcer, Guy of Guisburne.
Her father and Guisburne get into a fight, and her mother is killed, and her mother's necklace, with a blue star Sapphire, is stolen by the sherriff. Meanwhile, Matty has hidden in the aerie of her father's hunting birds, and discovers, in the stress of the moment, that she has the talent of speaking with, and to, her father's birds. But during the attack, the aerie collapses, hitting her in the head and leaving her sick and feverish for weeks.
Her father, and the castle, never really recover from the attack. Most of the servants leave, except for a very few with nowhere to go. Some, like, Fynn, are the children of other household servants, and they poach in the forest to keep everyone fed. Meanwhile, William Fitzwalter taught her how to handle predatory birds, and as she grew older and more experienced with handling them, the greater and deeper became her talent to speak to and understand them. Not just as a Falconer, but as one human can talk to and understand another, only more mentally.
As the time passes, Matty's life with her father goes downhill, but her life with the young men who come to the castle's chapel for services grows deeper. They construct their own hideouts in the forest, and Matty is increasingly angered as they seem to think now that she is grown, she shouldn't be hanging out with them any more. She wants to do what they do, and she joins them on their treks into the forest to hunt, bringing along not only her father's birds- Moss the Peregrine, Morgana the Kestrel, Ulysses the Goshawk and Lyra the short-winged hawk, but her own Merlin, Marigold.
But one day, while attending services in Lincoln, a strange, new woman joins the company in the Church, someone who Matilda doesn't trust at all, and someone who she thinks she has seen lurking in the forest. Shortly thereafter, the sacred chalice of the church goes missing, with its four matchless rubies, and Matty suspects that this woman may have something to do with it.
A week later, the chalice is returned, and everything seems fine. But Matty, who has been following the woman, who is the new Abbess of Ely, sees her secreting something in a hole in the forest, and when she investigates after the woman is gone, she finds four matchless rubies in a small bag. Knowing this is bigger than just her, she brings her friends, Fynn among them, into the mystery, and they take names for themselves to hide out in the forest. Matty becomes Marian, and Fynn the name Robin Hood.
With King Richard imprisoned in Germany, and his rapacious brother King John on the throne, Matty and her friends must find out what is really going on in Sherwood, and find a way to bring the stones as Ransom for King Richard to his mother, Eleanor. And can Matty regain the Star Sapphire stolen from her mother just before she died? And when the Abbess discovers who is really behind the theft of the stones from where she hid them, will Matty be the one to pay the price- imprisoned and tortured by the Abbess, and then flung into the Leper's Sanitorium when Matty will not talk? How can Matty, starved and abandoned, survive?
I really enjoyed this book, which adds a great deal of depth to the "Robin Hood and Maid Marian" stories (although, traditionally, Maid Marian is a rather late addition to the stories, which might have originated about other outlaws, like Hereward the Wake.
But in this story (which I have to admit, is very girl-centric), Marian is not only one of the outlaws, but pretty well the best of them, being the one with the best-constructed hideout (which she made herself), the one who plans the best "heists", and the one with quasi-magical powers about birds, and it is her capture that makes "Robin" and the rest of his Merry Men have to come up with an idea to find her and free her.
I think that this is a book squarely aimed at girls, but one which boys will find interesting and at the same time, subtly offputting, because Marian is made out to be so much better at so many things than the boys around her. Make no mistake- the book is great, but boys will probably find it a little less so than girls will. Still, Highly recommended for the greatness of the story and the characters.