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This is a passage from "Shardik" by Richard Adams.

Bel-ka-Trazet raised his eyes to meet those of the young woman. He said nothing, however, and she returned his look with an impassive air of authority, as though every man had a face like his and they were all one to her. After a few moments she jerked her head over her shoulder and one of the girls, coming forward, led the servants away, disappearing into the darkness under the trees near the bridge.

I just can't understand what she did with her head.

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If you are in a "face off", and have people or - even one person - behind you, under your command, and you are facing another person or group of people, and are holding a weapon or are in a position of power, in order to not remove your hands from a weapon or in order not to turn your body around to communicate with the people behind you thereby losing your aggressive stance, you signal that person or persons behind you by a movement of the head and neck to the side in a quick motion. This motion of the head and neck to the side comes from the head first and it is not smooth. It is a jerky motion: it signals to the person behind you to come forward or to do something else that has been pre-arranged between you. When you do this movement, your head moves over your shoulder a little bit.

In this case, the result is that a girl standing behind the person making the jerky head movement moves forward and leads the servants standing in front of the protagonist away.

This movement is seen at lot in war movies, detective thrillers, etc. where one person is in a face off with people in front of them. Generally, it is used to keep the hands on a weapon and not turn the body around.

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    + 1 Nice. I think we've said more or less the same thing, but yours is 'generalized' in a way mine is not. Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 15:57
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    Thanks, even though thanks are discouraged. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 16:04
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To jerk is to make a short, abrupt movement. In this case we understand the priestess to have gestured sharply with her head, using it to indicate a direction "over her shoulder"--behind her and to one side--as a signal to her companions that the servants should be led away in that direction.

Gesture is dramatic rather than linguistic, but Adams communicates a great deal in this 'stage direction'. First, its minimal quality suggests that the situation is either familiar or prearranged or both: the companions know without being told what they are to do when the priestess gives this command. Second, gesturing without turning, and with her head rather her hands, suggests that the priestess is concerned both to maintain eye contact with the Baron and to ensure that he is aware of the gesture. Taken with previous gestures--the young women ignoring the Baron and his party until the priestess emerges, and then ceasing work and taking up flanking positions when she does so--we have a picture of a scene carefully stage-managed by the priestess to emphasize her own dominance of this encounter between two powerful characters.

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  • @Araucaria Thank you. It's something I actually understand, as opposed to this linguistics stuff I make up as I go along to compensate for the shallowness of my reading. Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 21:45

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