All the boy knew is that he woke to a frightening weight crashing down on him and a roar so loud and close it seemed to shake the whole earth. For three terrifying heartbeats, he couldn't move or breath, or see. Then, just as suddenly, the crushing weight lifted, and he jumped to his feet, throwing off the blanket fur and looking around wildly. He froze. The weight that had pinned him to the ground a moment ago was a bear, and now its huge, humped back was now less than two arm lengths away.
Time seemed to slow. He was vaguely aware of the others around him, rising from their blankets and groping for weapons, and of the odd, jerky motions of the bear as it bit and clawed at a spear that protruded from its shoulder. He took one step backward, then another, and that's when the bear paused and turned its eyes to him.
There was nothing between it and the boy. He heard his father shout something, but it was too late, the bear, full of hunger and frustration and pain, swung his body around and took a single step toward him, lowering its head. There was no time to run, or to grope for his spear. The bear would maul him to death in seconds, before his father or the other hunters would have time to attack.
But then, a dark furry shape hurtled out of the darkness and rammed into the bear. A wolf, from the Pack-that-Follows. It clung to the bear's neck ruff and shook and scrabbled and snarled. The bear roared again and swiped frantically at the wolf with both arms. Attention diverted, the boy wasted no time and threw himself backwards into the bushes, out of the way.
He looked up in time to see the bear throw the wolf to the ground, but it had given the hunters time to grab their weapons and now they closed in on the bear from all sides. The fight was over in moments, spears and finally a stone club finished off the bear. and it lay limp right next to the fire. There was a round of shaky, tired cheers and then several family members set to work immediately to skin and butcher the bear. It would be bad luck to try to sleep with it lying there in the middle of camp.
But the boy had eyes only for the still form of the wolf. He crawled over on hands and knees and touched the wolf with a shaking hand. It didn't respond, the muscles slack in that familiar way of of an animal newly-dead. He carefully turned the head toward the fire light, and it was as he feared: The wolf's face had a striking dark stripe from forehead to nose tip. His favorite wolf from the Pack-That-Follows, one of the handful who had a name.
Uncle came up and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder as he began to weep. He stroked the wolf's fur for the first, and last time. Even the friendliest wolves like this one, the ones who would venture close to the fire for dinner scraps, wouldn't allow a person to touch them. So incredibly soft and thick. For a moment, the boy wondered what it would be like to have a wolf sleep next to you at night. How safe and warm you would feel.
"Stripey was so brave," he said. "He saved my life."
"Yes," Uncle replied. "He was Her gift to us, we must be thankful for the time he was with us."
The boy looked over his shoulder at the activity around the bear's carcass, then into the brush where the rest of Stripey's pack would be. He couldn't see or hear them, but they were probably watching, as they always did.
"We should give the Pack some of the meat," he said. Uncle nodded.
"I'm sure your father will agree."
"What will we do with Stripey's body?" It seemed to wrong to butcher it, even for the luxurious fur. This was not just any wolf.
Uncle seemed to understand. He went around to the rest of the family and told them to leave Stripey where he lay. None argued. In the morning, he and the boy wrapped an old blanket hide around Stripey's body.
"Come," he said to the boy, and picked up the wolf and walked out into the brush.
They walked for some time, pausing now and then to collect branches. By the time they reached an appropriate place - a low spot between hills, where stones peeked out of the earth to show it was a favored place of the Stone Mother - he was carrying an armload of branches so large he could barely see over it.
Uncle chose a place with a natural depression in the earth, next to a large boulder, and placed Stripey's body into it. He took out his knife and gently removed Stripey's head and set it aside. The rest of the body he re-wrapped in the blanket and together they covered it in all the branches and twigs they'd collected.
"How will he hunt without his head?" The boy asked, his tears returning. Uncle put an arm around his shoulders.
"He has a different job now."
A week later, when the hunting party returned to the Winter Caves with their bounty of food to share, Uncle also helped the boy clean up Stripey's skull and choose a place for him near the doorway to his family's dwelling. The boy had never paid much attention to the Guardian bones that others had placed in different parts of the cave. They were just part of his landscape. Now he realized that each one was significant. He made sure to listen more carefully when stories were told, and to tell Stripey's as well, and he also made sure to bring extra scraps to the Pack-That-Follows. As long as he lived, he would make sure no one forgot the bravery of this Guardian.
125,000 years ago, a family of Neanderthals in what is now called England placed wolf skulls at the entrances to their dwellings. It was around the same time that an important genetic divergence event took place among wolves in Eurasia, (according to mDNA, anyway) possibly showing the beginning of the separation between wolves and wolves who would later become dogs. We don't know much else about that period of time. We don't know Neanderthal's relationship with wolves, or their rituals or spirituality, but placing their skulls near doorways implies a spiritual connection. I think it's possible those skulls could have been from camp-following wolves. Wolves who are physically identical to, but were just a little different, from other wolves. Just a little more likely to hang out close to people, and for people to start to recognize individuals and form favorites and attachments to them, even if these wolves weren't yet very "tame".